John Stetch: Blending Heritage and the Jazz Tradition

Ken Kase By

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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.


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