Stetch at Full Stretch

Pianist John Stetch’s last CD, TV Trio of 2008  refashioned television program theme songs, from Star Trek to Dallas to The Waltons, as vehicles of the jazz interpreter’s art. All the music was composed by others, and transformed by Stetch’s talents for arrangement and improvisation into unexpected expressions of humor and poignancy.

In contrast to that masterpiece of bricolage, Stetch’s latest recording Fabled States, due out shortly, is made up exclusively of his own compositions and reflects this artist’s interest in, and mastery of, an impressive and enthralling spectrum of styles, emotional registers, and pianistic

The best recordings create their own world, the musicians taking their listeners to unfamiliar places or, when, revisiting familiar territory, doing so according to an unexpected itinerary that inspires new ways of hearing. Music becomes a form of transport, one that moves listeners not only emotionally, but also, in a sense, geographically, through the conjuring of far-off places.  The listener is made to journey within the self and beyond it.

To be able simultaneously to evoke distance and closeness requires skill and imagination, a keen sense of adventure and refinement, and a respect for history that is not slavish to the past but resolutely pushes forward towards untrodden ground. Exploration requires knowledge where others have been before. Inspiration comes from the artistic achievements of predecessors, and also from the quotidian?from people and sounds, newly encountered or affectionately recalled.

Fabled States encompasses a vast physical and emotional geography, these dozen original compositions by Stetch spanning a musical range that is global, stretching from the Black Sea to the Appalachian Mountains, from the Tibetan Plateau to New York’s 52nd Street in the heyday of bebop.

These travels begin with a tribute to Oscar Peterson. The magisterial, gospel-inflected chords that begin Oscar’s Blue-Green Algebra evoke reverence for a towering musical figure, while demonstrating a love for expansive sonorities and for powerful harmonic progressions. The introduction comes to a rest on a visionary chord that shimmers with the past even while it seems eagerly poised to cut loose from any obligation to it. The busy, furtive left-hand figure that breaks from this fermata is infused with restless energy that unexpectedly transforms itself into impressionistic, broken chords that could have been inspired by Debussy. Stetch’s richly textured pianism oscillates between tender harmonies, wild-eyed bluegrass, and rollicking gospel patterns, all of which allow for deft interplay between the members of the trio. These explorations are given final churchy benediction, made all the more stirring because of the trio’s glittering precision. The changes of mood, meter, style and affect are not only a tribute to the greatest of Stetch’s Canadian forbearers at the jazz piano, but also a glimpse into the unanticipated realms that imagination and technique can open up for musical discovery. However complex and mutable, this is music that graciously, often exuberantly brings others with it.

Such virtuosic playing and arranging, quickly and effortlessly traversing a range of moods and meters, textures and technical approaches to the keyboard, makes way for the more forthright approach in Lute Song, a collection of major and minor triads and modal harmonic progressions inspired by a bardic song from Sergio’s Leone’s 1961 film The Colossus of Rhodes. For the observant musical traveler, sustenance for the imagination can be found in a unlikely places. The sketch for Lute Song is filled out by the piano in gossamer filigree, shimmering trills, and heroic chords, with drummer, Greg Ritchie imbuing these ruminations with a mythic aura of oracular cymbals and shimmering brushwork. The bassist contributes his own muted, eloquent bass poetry.

In terms of geographical reach, Black Sea Suite is the most ambitious and extended of the destinations sought out by the album. The angularity and rhythmic drive of much of the suite is further energized by the chromatically altered melodic figures characteristic of the region’s music. Stetch mines his own Ukrainian heritage as well of the traditions of other peoples living around the Black Sea. The dance-till-you-drop momentum encompasses jazz grooves and shows that the raw physicality can unite music of disparate ethnic backgrounds.

Plutology is a spry thing, based on the harmonic map of I Got Rhythm, a map that can be read in an infinite number of ways.  The title pays homage to the many “-ologies” devised by Charlie Parker, the greatest master of this beloved chord sequence. Plutology is so named because it is farther “out there” in the solar system of bop than even those made by Parker, still the gravitational center around which all planets orbit.

Norbu 7.7 recalls a visit to the recording studio of Stetch’s wife Susan and the couple’s house guest, a Tibetan monk called Norbu. Stetch and Ritchie improvised this piece in their presence. Susan passed away a few months after the recording session, and Norbu then began the traditional forty-nine days of Buddhist prayer. After the bracing intensity of the two preceding numbers, this lovely piece shows that serenity and incantation are also crucial aspects of Stetch’s art. An unanticipated visit thus yields a beautiful thing captured on disc.

What the McHeck takes its title from the piano technician Donald McKechnie who prepared the piano in wonderfully mischievous quarter-tones for this buoyant bop exercise. It’s as if Renaissance music theorists keen to resurrect the microtones of the Greeks had wandered into Minton’s Playhouse for a jam session?Nicola Vicentino meets Thelonius Monk after hours.

The acerbic Monk seems also to comment on the waltz, Very Nutty, which isbased on the introspective Bill Evans’ celebrated waltz Very Early. The confrontation between the opposing styles of Monk and Evans is staged by Stetch with humor, irony and affection.

Do Telepromptu was born when Stetch arrived to coach a student combo and found its members practicing their bluegrass chops. Stetch sat down and began musing on what the students had been doing, and over the course of the class period constructed a piece out of the original material. The quickly-conceived creation visits many odd meters (including measures with seven, eleven, and thirteen beats). Against this shifting terrain there is much funkiness?the bluesiest shade of bluegrass.

Reading Party is itself an impressive tribute to the virtuosic skills of Stetch’s classical-trained musical colleagues. This minute-long etude of bumble-bee flights, octave thrusts and shattering chords throws down a very shining gauntlet to those very same friends.

Gmitri is an imaginative reading of the Prelude no. 23 in G Minor from Dimitri Shostakovich’s twenty-four Preludes and Fugues from 1951, and again marks Stetch’s engagement withthe classical tradition.  Stetch’s confrontation with the piece moves between elegant elaborations of Shostakovich’s harmonies to improvisations that unmoor themselves from the model, taking the plaintive prelude to places Shostakovich did not know his music would ever visit.

The disc’s title track, Fabled States, is based on tenor saxophonist and jazz composer Benny Golson’s Stablemates; here again Stetch is not content merely to gloss the original, but challenges it with rhythmic and harmonic interventions. Creating something new from the old brings the imaginative communication skills of his trio into full play.

The detuned languor of  Alaska Outdoor Piano Showroom is a brilliant and hilarious evocation of what might happen to a grand piano if left to the mercy of the northern elements. But even an artfully dilapidated instrument subjected to such extremes of climate cannot throw Stetch off his cool: this wry coda to a string of diverse originals is a testament to the truth that wherever a great musician goes in the world he will make music that revels in his immediate surroundings, but is nonetheless always on the way to new destinations.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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