John Stetch was already part of the New York City jazz scene when he first played in front of classical pianist and teacher Burton Hatheway in Fairfield, Connecticut back in 1993.
Hatheway, who is still teaching at the age of 87, didn’t mince words. “Do you want to be serious?” Stetch recalls the maestro asking.
“I said, ‘Of course. I am professional already,’ and he said, ‘Well, you need to play better than that.’”
Stetch credits that encounter, and his subsequent studies with Hatheway, with changing his life, especially his approach to playing the piano.
“In terms of the physical connection with the piano, and making sound, and unlocking kind of a new love for beauty and sound in music, and phrasing, I think he’s the guy for that,” Stetch says.
“But in terms of ideas and compositional textures and all those kinds of things, that just comes from everywhere.”
Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Stetch was exposed to an eclectic mix of music. His father played saxophone in dance bands and had an extensive collection of jazz records. Two of his uncles were closely connected to Edmonton’s venerable jazz club, The Yardbird Suite, from its beginnings.
Then, there was the strong cultural and folkloric tradition of his family’s Ukrainian heritage. In his teens, Stetch played sax with Dumka, a popular wedding band in the Edmonton area.
“I didn’t really like classical that much when I was younger, because I associated it with a culture of people that I didn’t feel I would relate to,” he admits.
“I don’t know exactly what that means, but I love it very much now. Whenever I do listen to music, it’s mostly that.”
Coming out of high school, and wanting to pursue music, Stetch thought the music program at the University of Alberta might be the answer.
“But the only thing they offered for me was classical saxophone, because I was a sax player. I wasn’t very good, and I wasn’t really good enough to do classical, but that was the only fit. It was not hard to get in, but it wasn’t very fun.”
He found a better fit at Grant MacEwan University, then a community college, where he made the transition from sax to piano at the age of 19. Later, he pursued a full music degree at McGill, which also exposed him to a rich jazz scene.
“There were so many people playing, and we were located right downtown. That was a great time.”
During more than two decades of composing and performing, Stetch has racked up six Juno nominations and released 16 albums so far. One of them, a solo piano trilogy entitled Ukrainianism, drew praise from Downbeat magazine as “one of the best solo piano recordings in recent years.”
The positive response to that album surprised Stetch, who had originally thought it would be “silly” to try incorporating Ukrainian themes into the jazz idiom.
“In fact, some of the best responses were from non-Ukrainian people. They appreciated that it was from my roots, and that it was from a true place. So that was interesting.”
Although Stetch is best known as a jazz musician, he isn’t comfortable with rigid categorization of musical genres.
“Especially in the music schools, it seems crazy to me that there’s a whole classical department of people that only teach classical, and then there’s the specialist jazz people. It’s starting to blend and bleed over a bit now, and I want to be involved in that,” he says.
“It seems so segregated right now. Or, when it is a mishmash, they have to make a big deal, and they have to say we’re a blend of all kinds of things. Really, I think it will turn out that there will be so many blends that there will either be a million different channels, or categories, or else we’ll just call it music.”
Stetch’s signature meld of classical music with traditional jazz, flavoured by Eastern European and even pop musical references, will be on display in Whitehorse on Wednesday, May 10 at a special Jazz Yukon-sponsored concert at The Old Fire Hall.
Besides Stetch, the quartet known as Vulneraville consists of Steve Kortyka on sax, Philippe Lemm on drums and Ben Tiberio on bass.
While they’ve only played together for a year, the four have already produced one live album and have developed “sort of a tribe language,” Stetch says.
“There’s more ease and fluidity with the stuff the more we play. A lot more kind of smiling at each other, that sort of thing. It’s my first group ever where I’ve really felt a sense of devotion. We get together pretty much every week, just to get more ease with it, and a deeper understanding and evolution.”
The current tour also marks the beginning of a homecoming for Stetch, who will be relocating to Vancouver in the coming months.
The May 10 concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.yukontickets.com, as well as at Arts Underground and the Yukon Arts Centre box office.