There he goes again. That John Stetch. Playing solo. Dampening strings. Reinterpreting music. Playing with a facility that stunned listeners, and reviewers, when he released his landmark Ukrainianism,
the CD that will define his career and which launched him into the ranks of leading jazz pianists. Personalizing music that reflects his background, as does, say, Chucho Valdés. Or finding ways to make the music express who he is, as did, say, Thelonious Monk.
Now, Stetch is tackling the oeuvre of Monk, coming to terms with the depth of Monk’s influence on his musical development. Like Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk, Exponentially Monk
is a solo exploration of the intricacies of Monk’s music. Like Panamonk, Exponentially Monk
reconciles the music of the pianist’s youth with the apparent oddness, the dissonance and the metrical originality of Monk. In Edmonton, Alberta, Stetch’s father listened to Miles Davis, and so Stetch was exposed to jazz even then. Later, he applied his virtuosic talent absorbing a multitude of technical devices and theoretical concepts to the remolding of songs through the freedom of jazz.
On Exponentially Monk,
Stetch takes Monk to the nth degree of internalized interpretation, bringing yet another fresh perspective to Monk’s music and proving once again how adaptable his songs are to un-Monk-like rhythms and reharmonization, even as Monk’s sense of playfulness and of pushing-the-envelope breaking of rules remain.
Stetch seems to break a few rules while he’s at it, even though his erudite statement in the liner notes gives technical explanations about the way he developed the improvisations, such as the use of modes or microtonal pedal points. Indeed, the manner in which Stetch anchors a few of the interpretations with pedal points, such as "Ask Me Now" in 5/4, as well as his decisions to strums the strings or to pluck them dampened on "Well You Needn’t," stands out as signature characteristics from this CD. On "Criss Cross," Stetch, in an adaptation of the pedal point’s repetitive nature, forms a whirling pattern set up under
a single note before the tune veers into new directions, as if a top were spun and let go. "Green Chimneys" provides basic material for Stetch’s imagination, first when he gradually undampened the furiously summoned strings and then when he plays with a mid-register trill decorating a middle-of-keyboard melody for a compaction of voicing. On "Think Of One," Stetch unfolds the song in the extreme lower register of the piano, letting the instrument’s resonance create a sense of mystery and recalling some of Stetch’s similar use of this lower range on "Ukrainianism." "Bright Mississippi" surprises when Stretch transforms this rumbling variation of "Sweet Georgia Brown" into virtually a classical event with an orchestrally accented ending on a broadly spaced tonic chord, more Tchaikovsky than Monk, and certainly the only treatment of its kind for the conclusion of this Monk tune.
Beyond Stetch’s talent for reinterpretation, Exponentially Monk
is notable for including the comparatively infrequently heard "Gallop’s Gallop" from Live At The It Club,
perhaps because of its difficulty, although the fearless Stetch finds nuances in the tune that allow for his own quirkiness to show through as well. Exponentially Monk
represents the third of Stetch’s solo piano recordings on Justin Time. Stetch now with over three hours of solo performance on record is able to engage the listener’s attention on his own, and in fact sometimes overwhelm the listener with flashes of brilliance unique to his inimitable style. In addition to his insights into the music of Thelonious Monk, John Stetch has distinguished himself as a formidable pianist with an apparently boundless imagination making all the more effective his formidable technique.