Video: Jazz visionary John Stetch on going back to school

Six-time Juno nominee and graduate student John Stetch talks about his restless, path-breaking career, the excitement of re-envisioning classical music through a jazz lens, and his decision to return to school 

Text by Tze Liew
Video by Colleen O’Connor

Over the past three decades, John Stetch has made a name for himself as one of Canada’s most innovative jazz pianists and composers. He has performed with contemporary greats such as Mark Turner and Chris Cheek and has recorded sixteen albums, including his most recent release, Ballads. Yet in the middle of a successful career that has earned him critical acclaim and half a dozen Juno Award nominations, he made the extraordinary decision to come to UBC to pursue an M.Mus in Composition.

Part 1: John Stetch talks about his decision to go back to school and the importance of community.

“I wanted to get a Master’s because the nature of work and teaching [in music] has changed in many places, and often requires more than just a Bachelor’s degree. I knew I was going to be living in Vancouver, and I’d heard of UBC and its beautiful campus. There wasn’t really a jazz program around, so I thought a Composition Master’s would be a great fit, since I’ve been starting to write some classical chamber music, not just jazz,” he says.

Stetch is no stranger to change. Ambitious and experimental, he has always forged his own path, inventing new techniques and musical styles — for instance, fusing classical and jazz music in his compositions. Reinterpreting well-known classical works by Mozart, Bach and Chopin through the language of jazz, he is fearless in altering the chords and rhythms, adding new textures with techniques like plucking the inside of the piano to create exciting new renditions, while still keeping the originals recognizable.

Part 2: Stetch demonstrates his unique approach to piano, performing a reinterpretation of Mozart K 333, Third Movement.

“I have this instinct to want to play a little differently every day,” he says. “There are so many interesting possibilities. What if you double up the octaves? What if you play the scale down instead of up? Or change the ending completely?”

Stetch was inspired to play classical music, especially after listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach. Gould’s daring, percussive style pointed to interesting possibilities within the classical canon. But Stetch, a jazz musician, wasn’t sure how to approach the material at first.  

“It was too strange to play Chopin in a jazz club,” he says. “So I ended up rearranging the classical pieces, making them my own style, and treating them as homages to the original composers. Now I can perform them in both jazz and classical contexts.”

Stetch has reworked pieces such as Mozart’s Sonata No. 13 in B-Flat, Chopin’s A-Flat Major Polonaise and Bach’s Italian Concerto, which he recently performed in a Wednesday Noon Hours concert. The Mozart Sonata is a bluegrass arrangement, inspired by a banjo concert he attended. The Chopin and Bach arrangements are jazz-influenced – in Chopin, he plays with odd rhythms to vary and contrast with the original; in Bach, he mixes time signatures to elongate or shorten the theme.

“Mozart and bluegrass were a perfect match. Bluegrass usually has a lot of fast notes, an obvious pulse, and the kind of tonic-dominant-subdominant chord progression that Mozart’s pieces [also] have,” he says.

For Stetch, the interaction between jazz and classical is a two-way street. While bringing jazz improvisation techniques to classical pieces, he also admires classical music for its emphasis on organisation, and tries to bring that into his jazz playing. “I’ve often heard complaints that jazz rambles on too much, that it’s too complicated and random. I don’t like that myself, so I try to keep my playing organized like classical pieces.”

Part 3: Stetch talks about the appeal of experimentation and how he combines classical and jazz music in his compositions.

For such an accomplished pianist, Stetch started piano relatively late, at age 18. He grew up learning clarinet and saxophone, and originally pursued studies in saxophone at the University of Alberta. There he was introduced to figures such as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jared and Wynton Marsalis, and was struck by the beauty and the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities of the piano.

“I stopped saxophone and switched to piano. I was addicted to it, obsessed with the harmonies and sounds that can be gotten from chords.”

He went on to study piano at McGill University, and later moved to New York, where, with the help of a grant, he sustained himself as a musician for two years and became a pianist for Rufus Reid’s band.

“I worked really hard and even felt behind when I first arrived at NYC, playing with people my age who had been playing all their lives. But at age 26 I found a classical teacher who changed my life. Burton Hatheway, who is now 86, had to get me to forget everything I knew and start from the beginning. It was one of the hardest things I've ever been through — it took about five years to make progress and 10 for it to really sink in.” 

While in New York, Stetch threw himself into the scene. He did so many gigs that he learned to be quick-minded and versatile – playing through unfamiliar standards, figuring out keys, working with singers and making sure the phrases flowed beautifully, all on the go. His improvisations didn’t always work out the way he wanted, though – there were always ups and downs.

Part 4: Stetch demonstrates his reinterpretation of Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat.

“Sometimes they were magical performances, and sometimes I really disliked my own music. You’re your own worst critic, after all. But through the repeated formative experience of trying to improvise and having it fail so many times, the desire to make it better pushes you to find ways to improve.”

It was these heady experiences of failure and growth that made John the improvisational, forward-looking musician he is today — always changing, always evolving. Counterintuitive though it may seem, his decision to uproot and move across the country to study at UBC made perfect sense.

“It’s been a long time since I got feedback on my compositions, so I thought it’d be really neat to get honest feedback and criticism from people like Stephen Chatman, Dorothy Chang, and Keith Hamel, who’ve been listening critically to new music for decades,” he says. “It’s a special introduction to Vancouver, having this instant community of composers to work with.”

At the School of Music, Stetch is challenging himself to compose for instruments he has never worked with before, such as strings and brass.

Says Prof. Hamel of his student: “John Stetch is one of the most naturally and innately talented musicians I have worked with,” says Keith Hamel. “He seems to have the ability to quickly absorb diverse musical styles, to understand the musical materials that comprise each style and to construct new works, which contain elements of the model but are uniquely personal. He understands composition as an act of communication between musicians and an audience, and he always writes with this foremost in his mind.”

Learn more about the School of Music’s Composition Program.


Banner image by Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music