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John Stetch Trio: Bruxin’

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Somewhere Whitney Balliett once said (I am paraphrasing from memory) that new original jazz tunes challenge the listener because the material upon which improvisation is based is unknown. Balliett is one of the few jazz critics ever to publicly cop to this blinding flash of the obvious. There is another potential issue with originals: There are fewer good composers than players.

Bruxin’ is pianist John Stetch’s first all-original trio album. His varied, well-crafted tunes all sound vaguely like someone else’s. Whitney Balliett also said jazz was “the sound of surprise.” The little vamp that opens “How Far Is Callisto,” the lilting, sweet melody of “The Girl in the Hemp Shirt” and the calculated abstractions of “Chord-Free Gord” are all pleasantly listenable and utterly unsurprising.

Stetch has uncommon pianistic facility, and his trio here with Sean Smith on bass and Rodney Green on drums is tight enough to fly in formation on swingers like the title track and “Circus.” But Stetch’s single most dominant trait is an unfortunate tendency toward cleverness and cuteness. When he tries to get serious, on pieces like “The Prairie Unfolds” and “Heavens of a Hundred Days,” his conventional, mannered decorations do not penetrate below the pretty, polished surface.