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John Stetch: Green Grove

Canadian-born pianist John Stetch was far and away the most outstanding entrant in last summer’s talent competition at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. I know, I was on the panel of judges that handed him the prize. After wading through 11 days of mediocrity, Stetch’s obvious talents jumped out at us, making our decision quite an easy one. Perhaps a bit of a ringer, since he had been working and residing in New York for the past few years, Stetch’s harmonic ingenuity and deftness with sly, shifting rhythms, along with the originality of his compositions, marked him as head-and-shoulders above the pack in Montreal. One of the enticements of the competition each year, apart from a cash award, is the promise of a recording session with Montreal-based Justin Time Records. Green Grove, Stetch’s resulting document, shows all the promise that we judges acknowledged last summer on the bandstand.

The title track is an appealing, bittersweet waltz that highlights Stetch’s gentle touch and fondness for improvising off of pedal point sections. “Chips for Crunch” is basically a blues full of eccentric twists and turns that showcases the pianist’s sense of playfulness within his highly interactive trio. Drummer Ted Warren gets plenty of room to solo here and his ideas prove to be more melodic than typically drumnistic. Stetch’s novel interpretation of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” puts a dark, groove-oriented spin on that romantic standard while his 6/8 take on Tony Williams’ “Sister Cheryl” adds a layer of grandeur to those sublime changes.

The most affecting piece here may be Stetch’s radical reinterpretation of “Body and Soul.” By merely hinting at the melody at the outset while playing out of time and organically letting the piece evolve into a straight-eight groove, he suggests the kind of provocative path forged by such forward-thinking colleagues as Richie Bierach, Marc Copland, Fred Hersch, and Brad Mehldau. That’s pretty heavy company, but Stetch is well on his way.

The jaunty solo piano closer, “Zabava,” plumbs the depths of Stetch’s ethnic roots and begs the question: What if Keith Jarrett had been brought up in the Ukraine? Though his name has an unfortunately similar ring to New Age annoyance John Tesh, this John is an abundantly gifted artist who bears watching.

Originally Published