John Stetch played inside and outside the piano and the music at his Chamberfest show ©Brett Delmage, 2017
John Stetch played inside and outside the piano and the music at his Chamberfest show ©Brett Delmage, 2017

John Stetch
Ottawa Chamberfest
La Nouvelle Scène
Wednesday, July 26, 2017 – 10 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

There are times when classical music can feel too constrained, a bit too perfectly enunciated within very strict and unyielding borders. That's not an problem with jazz pianist John Stetch, who quickly kicked away the boundaries in his show at the 2017 Chamberfest.

Stetch primarily played pieces from his 2014 Juno-nominated album, Off With the Cuffs, which consists of his jazz reimaginings of pieces by classical composers including Bach, Mozart, and Chopin, and from his earlier album Ukrainianism, whose pieces are inspired by folk melodies from his Ukrainian-Canadian heritage. It was a similar set-list to his show in Ottawa last September, but with a few added jazz standards and some changes in the classical repertoire.

He opened the hour-long show with probably his least-populist piece, especially for a chamber music audience. “Rye, Not Wheat!” is based on an Ukrainian wedding song, or rather permutations of that melody. But by the time Stetch finished with it, what it actually sounded like was a scatter-shot presentation of miniature musical ideas, all interesting but none actually coalescing. Here, there, back again, over somewhere else: the moods, the styles, the sounds, the speed kept changing before finally dissolving into individual notes and fading out. It was technically interesting but also frustrating.

He followed that with a much more interesting piece: his exploration of Mozart's Sonata No. 333 in B flat major, played in a bright pointillist style (almost ragtime in feel), and including delicate brushing of the strings inside the piano. He played it fast, with minimal sustain and emphasizing rhythm over melody – and then abruptly changed to playing what sounded like a fragile lullaby. It appeared as though he was removing the outer structure of the piece and exposing its beating heart – it certainly made the performance less predictable!

The last section of the sonata was deeper and even more fast and pounding before resolving into a quieter and brighter melody, with vibrating treble notes over strong bass chords. A final strum inside the piano, and it was over. Stetch said afterwards that he had been inspired to create this arrangement after hearing a banjo summit with Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka, and realizing the strong differences between banjo and piano. He decided to write a song in a bluegrass banjo flavour, and B-flat seemed to be the key that worked for that. He had also been working on the Mozart piece, so he said he tried giving one movement the banjo flavour, and it worked.

After a brief interlude with a jazz standard, playing slowly and flowingly, Stetch moved on to Bach's Italian Concerto. He told the audience he rewrote the first movement to have different rhythms but a lot of the same pitches, and the third movement to have the same shapes and rhythms but with different chords and harmonies than the original. The result retained the precise feel of the original but was more playful (in the first movement) and more dramatic (in the third).

He followed that with “Famine”, inspired by the 1933 famine in the Ukraine ordered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. It was thunderous and spectacular, played as much inside the piano with trembling plucked strings as outside on the keyboard and on the wood of the piano case. In some places, Stetch played on the strings with what appeared to be a furry-headed bass drum mallet to create ominous echoes. Lonely and deeply sad, it was a memorable piece.

After a short, twinkling rethinking of Thelonious Monk's “Ask Me Now” in 5/4 time (with a brief Bach inspiration), Stetch played a jaunty version of “O Canada!” with a ragtime feel – one of the happiest and least boring versions I've heard in a long time! He explained he would have liked to stretch on it a bit more, but needed to work on it further: “It's actually a great piece, the way the melody stays down here and at least from my memory, it only goes up to that high note at the very end and it builds there.”

Chopin's “Heroic” Polonaise closed the main part of the show. Stetch's rendition was immediately dramatic with intense chords, the original melody recognizable but accented to a greater extent by a deep bass rumbles. Then the melody began to crumble away, then reassert itself, and then was interrupted by heavier bass notes. It continued in that vein, with frequent interruptions and reinterpretations of the original – sometimes delicate and shining, sometimes more pounding, and sometimes with strummed strings inside the case – before ending with a last series of powerful chords.

It was a no-lifejacket performance, played with zest and intensity, and the audience recognized it with an extended standing ovation. Stetch's encore was an unadorned jazz standard, played with care and love: a perfect palate cleanser.

The show was played without amplification – and needed none. It demonstrated both Stetch's skill but also the beautiful tone of the Steinway grand piano he was playing. I don't think it would have been possible to produce the effects he did on a keyboard or electronic piano – not just the playing on the strings inside, although that was certainly important, but also the nuances in the quieter passages.

Now that Stetch has moved back to Canada from the United States (he's now based in Vancouver), it will be interesting to see where his music goes next, and who in that city's vibrant jazz scene he chooses to collaborate with. His latest album was a series of solo piano improvisations – will he continue in that vein, or work on more classical pieces, or return to playing jazz with a quartet? Regardless, I'm looking forward to the result.

– Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

  • Stetch/ Rye, Not Wheat!
  • Mozart/ Sonata No. 333 in B flat major
  • Jule Styne/ I Fall in Love Too Easily
  • Bach/Italian Concerto, BWV 971
  • Stetch/ Famine
  • Thelonious Monk/ Ask Me More
  • Calixa Lavallée/ O Canada
  • Chopin/Polonaise in A flat major (Heroic)
  • Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields/ In the Mood for Love

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