John Stetch: Blending Heritage and the Jazz Tradition


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I feel lucky to be a musician. Sometimes I feel really lucky that we live in a part of the world where I can actually have a piano. In some parts of the world, that
John StetchCanadian pianist John Stetch has been quietly building a catalog of fine compositions and recordings since his 1992 debut, Rectangle Man (Terra Nova, 1992). He's played in a variety of formats as a sideman and as a leader, he's fronted quartets and trios that have produced new interpretations of music from the standard jazz repertoire as well as compositions that reveal a unique and ever-evolving style.

His new CD, Bruxin' (Justin Time, 2006), marks his return to ensemble work for the first time since the album Heavens of a Hundred Days (Justin Time, 2000). During that time, he embarked on a series of solo piano albums, beginning with Ukrainianism (Justin Time, 2002), featuring music that reflects his proud ethnic heritage and which ultimately led to further solo excursions including fresh takes on the standard book and the music of Thelonious Monk.

Today, Stetch continues to perform both with his current trio and as a solo artist. He has toured Canada, the U.S. and Europe, been featured on National Public Radio and generated many enthusiastic critical notices.

Stetch's demeanor is not unlike his music: He is thoughtful and accessible, reserved but enthusiastic about his art and eager to discuss all matters musical. He has a dry sense of humor that draws you in and makes you feel welcome. I had the good fortune to speak with him for the better part of an hour by phone from his home in Ithaca, New York.

All About Jazz: I know that you became interested in the piano after you had studied tenor saxophone for many years. What was the catalyst for your decision to switch to piano at the age of eighteen?

John Stetch: I think maybe because I was getting a little frustrated with the fact that I wasn't improving enough on saxophone and clarinet. I was thinking that I had to please my parents and go to university and the only music program was classical saxophone. So that turned me off, and my teacher was trying to change my embouchure and I didn't like that because that was a sound I was not going for. So I was frustrated and I really liked [the piano sounds] I was hearing on recordings.

AAJ: Which recordings?

JS: Oh...Kenny Kirkland on really early Wynton Marsalis albums. I loved his time and touch and his conviction. Keith Jarrett a little bit and some of my dad's old records from the West Coast jazz. Even when I was younger, I used to sit down in front of the piano in the living room to fool around a little bit and all the kids would play something. I would figure out cartoon themes just to make people laugh.

More and more, I enjoyed just sitting down and experimenting with chords and rhythms. I heard someone at summer camp playing Kachaturian which is very rhythmic and somewhat Eastern European. And I remember thinking, "Wow! All that can be done on piano! and it was just a more interesting instrument for me to practice on by myself. I bought a Dave Brubeck book because I had some of his records and I thought, "Oh, this is really interesting that you can actually buy the music to something that you already have on record. I thought it was like decoding some interesting code because the notes that I heard were right there in front of me. So I would sit down and it would take me forever because I was a horn player, just trying to figure out a couple of small parts of his pieces and I really loved that sound.

AAJ: A lot of block chords!

JS: I remember some of them were too big because he could reach a twelfth. I also made a couple of tapes of just playing root position chords like minor sevenths and major sevenths just so I could practice the sax along with it, but it wasn't good voicing or anything. At nineteen, I switched to another college in Edmonton and took piano so that's when I practiced full time.

AAJ: You recently completed three solo piano albums. What did that do for you in terms of playing with a group again and why did you felt compelled to concentrate on the solo works?

JS: Solo playing is really different than playing with a trio or quartet because you can do a lot more or a lot less. You can really paint with the whole palette of colors. I wouldn't have thought of it were it not for the Ukrainian material, which is why I did the first album. I was kind of lazy to write that out for a group and I didn't think it would work. I thought, "Well, this will be a project I could do on my own for the people who like ethnic music.

So it started off like that and then I realized that more and more people liked it so I thought I should do a recording of it. It encompasses more of the things I get into on my own when I'm away from the guys in the trio. For example, harmonies and dramatic volume things—a lot of classical influences come out more in that music and it's special to me because it's my heritage. So I thought that as a first step, I'd document that, and to make it easy, I'll do it solo.

That had more success than I thought it would. More non-Ukrainian people liked it and so I thought maybe I should do a second album. I had time to throw in a bunch of standards and that's why Standards (Justin Time, 2003) came out of those two-day sessions. And then I figured a trilogy would make sense because Thelonious Monk's music is some of my favorite stuff. It's one of the barometers that jazz people use whether they're avant-garde or traditional—it doesn't matter. Monk just works kind of like a standard would work for anyone. In a different way [that music] can incite more rhythmic things. Some of them are almost like etudes for piano, so I still have to practice and review them where they get messy. That was good for me because I came up with some technical things that I wouldn't have otherwise.

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?

AAJ: Yes. And you continually revisit that music in live performance and then you get a chance to set it in stone on a record with a whole new interpretation.

JS: Right. And you've had time to think about it and know what's important on it. Sometimes it'll be just like one note that I'll take out of a voicing, especially for the head or something like that where you've got double thirds or something annoying that I didn't pay attention to. But now that I play more classical music, I do. Or even Bill Evans or something like that.

AAJ: What classical music are you playing these days?

JS: Some of my favorite people are Chopin, Bach, Mozart...especially with Bach's contemporaries like Scarlatti and Handel. They were born in the same year as Bach, but it's amazing how they're so different and yet they still were of the same time period.

AAJ: Yeah, they could swing! Some of the two-part inventions will keep your knuckles cracking.

JS: Yeah! And a lot of the modern Russian composers I've always loved. I don't play them much, but I've listened to them a lot and they find their way into my playing just because when you fool around on the piano enough, you come up with things that meet the textures that you need.

AAJ: How do you feel about the new album? Did you achieve what you set out to accomplish?

JS: Yeah, I think so. I feel really good about it. The guys really played great. They brought a lot of personality and energy and a live feeling to it. Because sometimes you go into the studio and it feels like that canned thing.

AAJ: I love the recording because it sounds just like three guys in a room.

JS: That's the thing—a lot of records sound like people are in different rooms with those large sound baffles...

AAJ:...and a little bit of leakage adds to the excitement of the sound of a live performance.

JS: Yeah. If you're connecting only through headphones, that's not so good for the feel of things. We just basically played very close without much baffling and it's just a good feel. I don't think we wore headphones, either. You feel free and not like you're under a microscope. The headphones magnify your own sound unless you just shut it off and then you won't hear yourself, which is not good. So they kind of magnify your own touch at a super-close-mic'd level which is not a nice sound. You get overly critical and I just don't like it. It felt more live.

AAJ: Talk to me about Sean Smith and Rodney Green. What do you think they brought to your music?

John StetchJS: I've seen them around town in other people's bands so I knew of them. But as fate would have it, they ended up on one of my gigs about a year and a half ago. It was the first time we played together. So I sent them the music in advance and they'd obviously done their homework because it was not easy music—it was tricky. In fact, I think Sean didn't even get it at first and he had to learn on the spot. I was really impressed. They brought a lot of interaction, always keeping the forward motion going and keeping the egos out of the way so it was more about supporting rather than trying to out-do or out-shine.

AAJ: Well, something definitely happened because, on tunes like "Chord- Free Gord, you have some intense rhythmic interplay going on.

JS: That felt lucky when those things happened because we hadn't played that much before that album—just a few gigs. But now we're getting to play more and I'm looking forward to that. It's really nice to have continuity with people who know your music and it keeps evolving. It gets more and more fun that way. I'm hoping to keep it together because that's the best thing anyone can hope for—to keep a band working.

AAJ: Anything you'd like to say that we haven't covered?

JS: I feel lucky to be a musician. I really love doing it. Sometimes I feel really lucky that we live in a part of the world where I can actually have a piano. In some parts of the world, that's not even an option. With all this American Idol stuff and the way pop music works where you could be just a flash in the pan, it feels good to be doing something that maybe doesn't get out there as fast. You get to slowly tweak it and work with it and improve on it, hopefully over a whole lifetime.

Selected Discography

John Stetch, Bruxin' (Justin Time, 2006)
John Stetch, Exponentially Monk (Justin Time, 2004)
John Stetch, Standards (Justin Time, 2003)
Chris Kase, Nine Easy Pieces (Satchmo Jazz, 2003)
Rufus Reid, The Gait Keeper(Sunny Side, 2003
John Stetch, Ukrainianism (Justin Time, 2002)
John Stetch, Heavens of a Hundred Days (Justin Time, 2000)
John Stetch, Green Grove (Justin Time, 1999)
Alain Trudel, Jericho's Legacy (Naxos, 1998)
Chris Kase, Starting Now (Mons, 1995)
Tana Reid, Looking Forward(Evidence,1995)
John Stetch, Stetching Out (Terra Nova, 1996)
John Stetch, Carpathian Blues (Terra Nova, 1994)
John Stetch, Rectangle Man (Terra Nova, 1992)
Rufus Reid, The Gait Keeper(Sunny Side, 2003)"¨
Tana Reid, Looking Forward(Evidence,1995)

Photo Credit: Jimmy Katz

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