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For pianist John Stetch, Standards is just as much about reinterpreting as reinventing. Quite literally. His second solo piano recording after last year's totally unexpected Ukranianism takes on the full range of the jazz canon, from the relatively obscure (Charlie Parker's "Segment") to the downright promiscuous ("Stella By Starlight"). He seems to delight in plying a totally different angle with each piece, as if he's afraid he might grow stale if he got stuck in any kind of rut. That works just fine, since Stetch's imagination knows few bounds.
The opener, "Segment," is an exercise in swinging pointillism. Using very few notes, none of which are held, Stetch dances around Parker's theme. Despite the easy feel of the piece's rhythm, it becomes immediately clear that the pianist has a nearly compulsive interest in timing. This unswerving devotion to metrics echoes the stoicism of early 20th century classical musicor the early music of Cecil Taylor, for that matter. But Stetch's attention to detail pays off in the big picture. When the piece dashes off to its crashing climax, it seems like a sort of odd symmetry has been achieved.
Every published review of this record will mention "All The Things You Are," guaranteed. And Stetch's version is truly remarkable. Basically he runs the melody backward with respect to the harmony, yielding a creature that seems oddly at once familiar and alien. Rippling and coursing along its path, he revels in drama and more than a pinch of dissonance. You will never hear another version of this very popular standard that bears such a distinctive touch.
Beyond that, the record opens up and Stetch chases into any number of curious alleyways. He waxes lyrical, rippling along gently arpeggiated chords; then moments later tears up counterpoint and syncopation in a feast of two-handed Monkishness. While Standards may be a study in contrasts, it's readily apparent that John Stetch has invested a great deal both personally and artistically into each new exploration. He seems to be chafing at the bit, looking for holes in the fabric, grasping for a new handle. It will be very interesting to see where the next step in his solo piano cycle leads.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.