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John Stetch: Blending Heritage and the Jazz Tradition

By Published: July 3, 2006
AAJ: Was there a moment when your Ukrainian heritage and the jazz aspect of your playing intersected? Was there a "Eureka! moment?

JS: I never had that. It was just kind of all the same. It was all music. But it was frustrating to try to come up with things that didn't just sound like polkas. I used to play in a Ukrainian wedding band and that's sort of what it sounded like. It didn't seem like it would work at first, and I thought I really had to take it further out there or further forward in order to come up with arrangements that would be interesting and still have rhythm without being a polka. I really like the Eastern sound like Gypsy music and Klezmer, Bulgarian choir music. That probably influenced me too.

AAJ: I found an album of yours that isn't usually listed in your general discography called Kolomeyka Fantasy (Global Village, 1996). What's that about? You can't get it for under $26 these days?

JS: The story is that a lot of those tunes ended up on Ukrainianism. When I first made that album, it was something I'd sell off the bandstand at gigs where I would play for Ukrainian communities. I never thought it would cross over into the jazz territory. A small label, Global Village Music, picked it up and it got a little bit of exposure, but it never had much distribution or jazz reviews or anything like that. Plus, I had made some changes that I really liked more and I added some more tunes and I really wanted to re-document it. That's why Ukrainianism came out. I know that it's been discontinued, so that might have something to do with the price. I want people to get Ukrainianism instead. There are so many repeated tracks and a couple of things I'm a little embarrassed about, but I probably shouldn't be so harsh. I've thought about doing Ukrainianism live someday in the Ukraine. I think that would be fun.

AAJ: What effect do you think it had on your playing now that you're back to playing with a group again?

JS: I think it was a good thing because I feel a little more solid in terms of being able to play the whole piano if I want to, although you don't always want to in a trio. I feel a little more solid in terms of the low, middle and high—like I could choose either and it would be tighter and less disjointed and less clumpy as before. It's just a little smoother overall. I notice that when I play ensemble things—like rhythmic figures with the group—I feel like I'm able to relax a little bit more and be in with them.

AAJ: It's funny that you should mention that because on your new album, Bruxin', that's what comes across. The older compositions that you've included feel looser. It sounds like you feel more comfortable. What prompted you to revisit the older material? Have you improved upon the older tunes or are they just reinterpretations that indicate where you are now musically?

JS: To be honest, I didn't think that people knew about those old tunes. I toured Canada a few times and got some reviews there and I thought that was it. I didn't think it got much exposure in the U.S. and Europe. I figured that some of my best older works hadn't been heard yet. But like you said, I'm more relaxed now, so I thought it would be better to document it now. On a couple of them, I had a couple of new ideas for alterations and subtle shifts balancing chords and harmonies and things that would make them a little bit better.

AAJ: On "Inuit Talk there are a couple of things you've changed in the theme of the tune and a few rhythmic jumps I noticed were not on the original version.

JS: Yeah, and that's partly [drummer] Rodney [Green] and [bassist] Sean [Smith]. They bring a new life to it also, so that gave me some ideas. I added a new section and you're right, the intro is totally different.

AAJ: I've written about the new album and that song in particular, saying that the New Orleans parade rhythms and the melodic line made it sound like Mardi Gras at thirty degrees below zero.

JS: That's funny. That makes sense. People have said that I have a Canadian sound. They can't say that it's European or Southern American like Marcus Roberts or Caribbean or something like that.

AAJ: One of my favorite tracks from the new disc is "How Far is Callisto? You use the Coltrane changes really well, especially in 5/4 time.

JS: Thank you! When I'm writing those things, I never really know if writings omething like that is going to be any good because it's just a little melody over some changes. It's been easy for me because I listened to a lot of that when I was younger. It's just something that I got into early.

AAJ: I was really struck by the fact that the old and new compositions on the album work really well together.

JS: Thanks. Someone else said that one of the older tunes, "Rectangle Man sounded new. That kind of thing blew me away because there was a period where I was thinking, "Jeez, these tunes are just history, and you feel like you're just going to pack them up in a chest in the attic forever. But that's kind of silly if you think of all the composers in history. Imagine that they wrote something when they were twenty or thirty, and if you like their stuff, you just like it. It just sounds a little bit different, that's all. So if it was a good tune, then it should still be a good tune, right?

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