John Stetch
Steinway Piano Gallery, Ottawa
Thursday, September 22, 2016 – 7 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

For his current solo piano tour across Canada, John Stetch has reached forward and backwards, to his own roots in music and to a rethinking of the well-known classical repertoire. And the result, at his first tour stop in Ottawa, was a dynamic and engrossing hour of music.

John Stetch kept the audience at the Steinway Piano Gallery engrossed while playing an unsual combination of repertoire -- and not a standard in sight ©Brett Delmage, 2016
John Stetch kept the audience at the Steinway Piano Gallery engrossed while playing an unsual combination of repertoire -- and not a standard in sight ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Although he's a jazz pianist, the pieces Stetch played Thursday weren't drawn from the standard repertoire. That's a deliberate decision, as he told the audience. He's been to jam sessions in New York City, where he currently lives, and heard other pianists play standards – all too similarly to the way he would.

So he's creating his own sound by playing music other jazz pianists don't: his reinterpretations of classical concertos and sonatas; take-offs on TV theme songs; and music inspired by his Ukrainian-Canadian heritage.

Stetch is originally from Edmonton, and one of his earlier albums was called Ukrainianism [2002]. He played several pieces from that album, based on folk melodies and on Ukrainian history. He also drew from his 2013 Juno-nominated Off With the Cuffs album, in which he took well-known classical compositions by Mozart, Shostakovich, Chopin, and Bach, stripped them back to their roots and reinvigorated them.

It's a classic jazz improviser attitude: instead of treating the music reverently like a holy object, respect its melodic essence and then look at it from other angles.

And the upshot was uniquely Stetch, with percussion emphasized over melody, abrupt changes in direction that kept the listener involved, and a large dynamic range.

He opened with “Zabava”, an early piece based on Ukrainian folk melodies, which he opened by playing the strings inside the piano, a metallic and insistent rhythm, and then added quick fast bright notes on the keyboard, before outlining the melody. While he always kept an identifiable thread of melody, he frequently changed dynamics and pace, moving from delicate to anthemic – eventually returning to the bright notes of the beginning before ending.

In introducing the third movement of Mozart's Sonata No. 13 in B flat major, Stetch mentioned that he was influenced by listening to banjo players like Bela Fleck, and how they used repeated notes to keep the rhythm going. While his piece included some of the dancing feel of the original, it included more rhythmic experimentation: notes muted by him touching the strings inside the piano while playing fast on the keyboard with the other hand, an almost-bluegrass feel at one point, and an overall fast-paced, dramatic approach.

His rendition of Bach's “Italian Concerto”, on the other hand, kept the fugue style, but added for vibrating lines and shifting rearrangements of notes. He played the first and third movements and noted that in the first movement he kept the notes and changed the rhythms, while he did the opposite in the third movement. The first movement felt more formal, while the third was more flowing and with striking flourishes and changes in dynamics.

I particularly enjoyed “Famine”, a remembrance of the famine in the Ukraine which Stalin created in 1933. Despite its origins, the piece contained some lovely, almost magical passages. It was sparser and more attenuated than the other pieces, with light shimmers of sounds followed by resonant chords, and ending with a final scratching sound inside the piano before dying out.

“Kolomeyka Fantasy”, which followed it, began joyously, moved to thunderous chords which Stetch let ring around the room, became upbeat again, and then deepened before ending in a flourish, all while expressing a memorable melody.

In 2008, Stetch released an album called TV Trio, in which he interpreted vintage TV theme songs, and which also received a Juno nomination. In Ottawa, he performed the theme from The Brady Bunch, which wasn't on that album.

My TV show watching has always been a bit spotty, and never in my life had I actually seen that show, or heard its theme music. I listened to the theme on YouTube the following evening, and I have to say that the original is one of the most boring and flat and asinine songs I have ever heard. What Stetch did with it was substantially more interesting – he kept the sunny feel, but added more rhythmic and melodic variations.

Stetch closed with the Heroic Polonaise by Chopin, which he began heroically, with dramatic sweeps of the keyboard and an overall martial feel, before starting to deconstruct the theme. He alternated romantic quiet passages – among the most melodic of the evening – with percussive explorations, and then moved into a full-out magnificent portrayal of the theme, before dropping back into a quieter, more nuanced passage and ending with with a deep bass rumble. The audience clapped strongly.

The concert attracted about 70 listeners, packing the piano gallery. They warmly applauded throughout, and were clearly listening intently. After the concert, Stetch took a whole series of questions from the audience, on topics which included:

- the difference between an upright and a grand piano in playing this music: the grand piano has more colour and responsiveness in the keys.

- would he play on an digital piano? He recently turned down a show that would have required him to play a digital piano. The pianos do not sound as good, and essentially force him to play with someone else's touch.

- would he play both the original and his version of the classical pieces together in concert? He played through the originals in order to learn them, but it would be very confusing now to play the two different versions.

- which pianists does he listen to? When he started out, he listened to more non-pianists, but also a wide range of pianists including Herbie Hancock, Kenny Kirkland and Keith Jarrett. He also enjoys Brad Mehldau, Larry Goldings, and Kevin Hayes. He also listens to recordings of classical music, not so much for the compositions as for the touch and interpretation.

– Alayne McGregor

Set list:

  • Stetch/ Zabava
  • Mozart/ Sonata No. 13 in B flat major, third movement
  • Stetch/ Rye, Not Wheat!
  • Stetch/ Famine
  • Stetch/ Kolomeyka Fantasy
  • Bach/Italian Concerto, BWV 971, first and third movements
  • Theme from The Brady Bunch
  • Chopin/Polonaise in A flat major (Heroic)

John Stetch's 2016 Canadian tour:

  • September 22 – Ottawa, at the Steinway Gallery
  • September 23 – Toronto, at Gallery 345
  • September 24 – Montreal, at Upstairs with Mike Rud and Friends
  • September 26 – Edmonton, at MacEwan University (noon) and at Cafe Blackbird (evening)
  • September 27 to 29 - Victoria
  • September 30 - Regina, UCC 125th Anniversary of Ukrainian Immigration
  • October 2 – Saskatoon, at The Bassment

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Read a review of another performance at the Steinway Piano Gallery: Fawn Fritzen matches originals with vocal jazz classics in a finely-tuned show

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