John Stetch: Exponentially Monk

[14 September 2004]

By Robert R. Calder


John Stetch isn’t the first rising young lion to have essayed a hugely successful solo piano set on Monk themes. There is the precedent of Fred Hersch, with a performance somewhat different in a lot of detail. Hersch is poise and finesse, beautifully judged in perfect keeping with Monk. The young Canadian/Ukrainian Stetch is no less sophisticated a musician, but is more outgoing in a whole range of departments, physically no less than intellectually. It was rather an exaggeration when Monk was compared as a composer with Bela Bartok, long ago, but it wasn’t a stupid one. There was a lot more to Bartok, but there was a very great deal to the musical genius of Monk, which might be underestimated because as a jazz composer he bequeathed a great deal by way of implications to be worked out. The same sort of legacy of implications is what makes James Lincoln Collier’s equation of Louis Armstrong with Beethoven far from ridiculous. Monk is at any rate rather more than a coat-rack on which the career-ambitious junior can hang a CD or concert programme. If a Monk programme is done well at all it is quite something, like sets I heard live from Paul Motian/Joe Lovano/Bill Frisell, and from the Branford Marsalis trio with Marcus Roberts.

John Stetch has done something that was never to be undertaken lightly, and his approach seems to have been based on an exceptionally detailed appreciation of Monk’s harmonic intuitions, knowing the material inside out and being able to reconceive each composition somewhat as Art Tatum and subsequent pianists were able to reconceive the musical legacy of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern. The result here isn’t anything analytical, or more polite or more conventional-sounding. It’s forthright, and outgoing as well as weighty.

The CD opens with a walking sort of left hand figuration used variously by some stride pianists but brought to a high art by Dave McKenna, a major pianist still too little appreciated though he’s now in his seventies and diabetic neuropathy has silenced those great hands. Even John Stetch hasn’t managed McKenna’s left hand skips, grumbles, and slurs.

This “Bright Mississippi” is a bold performance, breaking the walking bass into an ostinato figure and quoting “In Walked Bud” (which doesn’t have a separate performance here) before there’s a titanic pastiche of some sort of noisy piano concerto ending (the thinking man’s James Booker?). There are more not entirely solemn effects in the bass figuration of “Well, You Needn’t”. Something similar recurs following a little some under the lid string-strumming on “Think of One”. This proceeds to some middle-to-upper register vamping under filigree right hand stuff. It might even be reminiscent of some Lionel Hampton fireworks, the trilling right and the clanging left.

“Green Chimneys” develops further the playing off of quite far-out harmonies in each hand. There are some modern classical effects and even bagpipe music harmonies. The final booming note follows on something like a keyboard tour of the world, not to mention a pretend final note.

“Monk’s Mood” starts straightish, but then the left hand goes a long way down (I could have mentioned earlier descents into contrabass territory—pianos have their dark side, too). That offsets nicely the melodic invention and the spaces of the right hand. Tatum?

“Gallop’s Gallop” isn’t a famous Monk composition. “Evidence” is, and begins with some rapid runs over some bottom-end figurations. It goes into something like free coda playing with lots of low noise. A very ambitious weaver, John Stetch.

“Ugly Beauty”, by contrast, is delivered both with astonishing delicacy and a degree of attention to detail which might commend the present version to a transcriber. There may be no limit to how much of Monk could be realised with pretty well orthodox classical fingering, but the extent of human knowledge is still some way from finding out how to do so with more than a few isolated samples of the repertoire. Stetch’s “Criss Cross” has the heavy basso barbaro of Bartok, and even a quote from Bartok’s incredible “Allegro Barbaro”, the apogee alike of complex harmonic knowledge and keyboard savagery. Mighty the man who can do that and then deliver “Blue Monk” with some very agricultural blues playing

“Little Rootie-Tootie” opens with a fiendish right hand run, almost a patter-song right hand line over harmonic progressions the in the left. It’s almost like speech.

“Round About Midnight” is indeed a straight reading, in the right hand, after the fashion of the lyrical hornman who can do a lot without changing more than the occasional note. The development of left hand and contrabass harmonies is, however, prodigious. “Ask Me Now” develops the melody in a novel, interesting way, prior to finding common territory with areas of multi-noted Bach fugue few fingers could even dare. I did once hear a live set of Monk tunes where a young pianist fell into dire exercise-book counterpoint. I also, mind you, heard the late Mal Waldron during one gig play piano with the very majesty of a great cathedral organist. John Stetch is definitely on the Waldron side of that equation. He does appear to be a huge player. If I have any reservations about commending this set, they are founded entirely in wariness of my own reactions. These were well into having been bowled over. Nobody else is liable to try this sort of thing in a hurry, but I still feel sufficiently daring to say that I would listen for anything of the sort.

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