John Stetch: Ukrainianism (2002)
From the title and the extensive liner notes, there's no doubt that pianist John Stetch has devoted this solo record to his roots in Ukrainian folk music. (And it's not the first time he's done this.) It's tempting to go into detail about the specific origins and hidden meanings of the various tracks, but that approach really sells Stetch's vision short. On Ukrainianism, he takes simple melodies and adopts them as his own, interpreting them through a complex and ever-evolving web of sound. At times these tunes are more Stetch than Ukraine, but at others they beam directly from Eastern Europe with rootsy melody.
From the outset, Ukrainianism has the feel of a recital. While certain tunes have a lilt and swing which may suggest dance, they tend to fall into a kind of formalism that simultaneously elevates the music and demands careful listening. Make no mistake, though: Stetch is a formidable talent with a vast imagination and chops to back it up. On the opener, he plays left hand against right with evolving chordal accompaniment bouncing up against basslines, ostinato treble, and elemental melodies. From either up close or afar, it works. Stetch also has a certain affinity for controlled noise, which manifests itself in the way he mines the deep bass and how he occasionally colors his harmonies with less-than-euphonic detail. But unlike many pianists from the free jazz realm, one has the feeling that Stetch makes conscious and exceptional use of dissonance to provide perspective on the more delicate portions of the record.
The pianist also delves into soft and gentle sounds. The third track, "Kolomeyka Fantasy," conveys a gentle, lyrical sense of storytelling. Shortly afterwards, "Harmony in the Family" builds from a pointillistic introduction into savvy counterpoint which intertwines melody with accompaniment, making it difficult (yet again) to distinguish where Ukraine ends and Stetch begins.
And that's the main point, really. As a seamless fusion of Ukrainian roots music, the American jazz tradition, and Western European classical forms, Ukrainianism works brilliantly. Just remember that you're more likely to enjoy this record if you give it your full attentionbackground listening just doesn't work very well.
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Track Listing: Rye... Not Wheat!; Kolomeyka Fantasy; Harmony in the Family; Zabava; Famine; Carpathian Blues; Sitting by the Window; Savella; Children of Chernobyl.
Personnel: John Stetch: solo piano.