John Stetch Exponentially Monk

It has become de rigueur for jazz musicians to pay tribute to pianist/composer Thelonius Monk. The results have ranged from equivocal to questionable, rarely inspired. Some approaches have been simply based on the "coolness” factor adhering to Monk’s iconoclastic aura, a sad commentary on the desire, conscious or unconscious, to partake of reflected credibility believed to accrue from playing his tunes. But a handful of musicians have made the study — and it does need to be studied — of Monk’s music a major component of their own musical identities. The recent passing of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy brings to mind how few people really have come to terms with these quirky, deceptively simple tunes that open up dimensions for improvisers that have yet to be fully explored. Then along comes Canadian jazz pianist John Stetch, who records an entire solo piano CD, 13 pieces in all, of Monk’s compositions, and who shows what dedicated, and respectful study can accomplish with this formidable body of work. Stetch doesn’t merely play the melodies and saunter off into his bag of licks. Instead, he does exactly what these marvellous works demand: he explores them, looking for the relationship between his own musical personality and the diamond-hard structures that one violates at one’s peril, as they are entirely self-sufficient and perfect in themselves. Stetch, much to his credit, also remembers the humour and playfulness inherent in Monk, as he exuberantly roars through the totally cheerful opener, "Bright Mississippi.” He arranges some pieces like "Well, You Needn’t” and "Monk’s Mood” by using percussive inside-the-piano manipulations or thoughtful re-harmonisation and moving contrary lines, all to wholly appropriate effect. On the seldom heard "Gallop’s Gallop,” Stetch puts the pedal to the floorboard on his considerable chops, playing the complex line at a hair-raising clip, stopping on a dime, and soaring off in a new direction, all while maintaining a gutsy swing. Some pieces don’t find the conjunction between composer and interpreter in total harmony. "Ask Me Now” and "Little Rootie Tootie” incorporate Stetch’s classical piano technique in ways that take the bite out of the original piquancy of the tunes (think of Vindaloo made with pepper, not cayenne). Nevertheless, Exponentially Monk persuasively argues that Monk’s music can be played with its intended ethos, provided that musicians do the necessary work. Monk would play a single tune for hours until he had interpreted and internalised it at an organic level. John Stetch apparently has taken a similar route and produced a CD that will reward repeated listening. (Justin Time)