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 Friday, 27 November 2015
Always Genuine, New Chestnuts From Cyrus PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Thursday, 16 February 2006

The hallmark of jazz is spontaneous creation, so I decided I had to find a way to make every piece a new journey and bring my influences together in each piece in an organic way.”–Cyrus Chestnut


I’ve always thought of pianist Cyrus Chestnut as the real deal. I was first attracted to his swinging dexterity when I heard his first Atlantic release, Revelation, in the early 90s. Long a fan of Oscar Peterson, I heard in Chestnut a similar bluesy soulfulness, with maniacal speed, powerful chords, and a selectively lyrical touch. Over the years, Chestnut has remained on a trajectory buoyed by southern traditions and classical training, a melding of gospel, blues, soul, swing, and bop. When the major labels began a retreat from jazz, Chestnut was caught in the ebb-tide, dropped by long-time host Atlantic and then Warner Brothers, and wondering if his well of inspiration was similarly evaporating. Judging by his Telarc debut, Genuine Chestnut, that wellspring of genius flows unhindered by a fickle marketplace.

The Road to Telarc


Baltimore native Cyrus Chestnut first learned piano from his father at age five, and was performing in church by age 7. By age 9 he was studying classical music at the Peabody Institute. Absorbing the music that surrounded him throughout childhood—heavy doses of gospel, R&B, blues,and jazz, as well as classical, he finally yielded to the power of jazz and enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. As he evolved a personal style of multi-generational influences from Jelly Roll Morton to Art Tatum to Hank Jones, Red Garland and Tommy Flanagan, as well as Peterson, Chestnut received Berklee’s Eubie Blake Fellowship, Oscar Peterson Scholarship, and Quincy Jones Scholarship, graduating with a degree in jazz composition and arranging. He earned his performance credentials with John Hendricks, Terence Blanchard, and Wynton Marsalis before joining Betty Carter for a two-year residency in the early 90s. Chestnut cut his first recordings as leader for Alfa Records before signing with Atlantic in 1993.


Following the abrupt termination of his successful run with Atlantic and a short-lived partnership with Warner Brothers, Chestnut spent some time reevaluating his music. In a recent Downbeat interview (March 2006), he noted that he is “finally getting to a different realm of playing and composition… I can feel myself starting to make that turn…. I wanted the focus to be on conveying the emotion and passion of what I’m trying to say.” In fall 2004, Chestnut took what seemed to be a new path, collaborating with James Carter, Reginald Veal, and Ali Jackson to reinterpret the music of rock band Pavement, resulting in the release of Gold Sounds (Brown Brothers). Not only did this mark a funky detour but an electronic turn for Chestnut on organ and Fender Rhodes (he also played some Fender Rhodes on Carla Cook’s Simply Natural in 2002). Next, with a contract with Telarc, he took his new focus into the studio, recording Genuine Chestnut.

The Genuine Chestnut

If the new Telarc recording retains the diverse inspirations of past Chestnuts, it nevertheless reflects the pianist’s more focused commitment to integrating rather than merely showcasing his many roots. “I wanted the focus to be on conveying the emotion and passion of what I’m trying to say. Sure, you have to have a balance between form and inspiration. But I tend to lean a little more on inspiration these days.” Is this really a new conception? Hints of what would become Genuine Chestnut were planted long ago, from the title track of Revelation to such composition as “Cerebral Thoughts” on 2001’s Soul Food. On You Are My Sunshine (2003, Warner Brothers), his so-called “gospel” recording, there was already a strong sense that Chestnut was seeking to marry his many influences into a unified style. Listening to Gold Sounds, one is struck not only by the new adventures in funk and electronics but by the threads connecting past and present, the simultaneous injections of R&B, soul, gospel, and blues; and tunes such as “My First Mine” still carry that vintage Chestnut swing. But if his fans were expecting the next outing to be further explorations of rock or electronica, that does not seem to be the turn that Chestnut’s “new” road is taking. Rather, Genuine Chestnut seems to bring together all of the pianist’s past efforts into a more cohesive mélange, more clearly focused on the spontaneous combustion of diverse (and acoustic) elements.

The “Genuine” in the album title refers to the origins of the music on multiple levels, not only the confluence of muses but the fact that most tracks are original Chestnut compositions; the exceptions include three seldom jazzed covers of such divergent hits as David Gate’s “If,” Roberta Flack’s signature Ewan MacColl tune, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and Fat’s Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” as well as Chestnut’s arrangement of the traditional “Lord, I Give Myself to You.” Retaining the familiar virtuosity of his working trio of Michael Hawkins (bass) and Neal Smith (drums), Chestnut also brings into the mix the elegantly soulful guitar of Russell Malone and the dynamic percussion of Steven Kroon—the trio alone is heard on only one of the eleven tracks; Chestnut closes the set himself with a solo hymn.

In his liner notes, Chestnut explains that these tracks are “canvases of sound:” “I want to the songs to paint a picture in the mind’s eye. I wish to tickle one’s senses, dance with one’s emotions…challenge one’s intellect.” Genuine Chestnut succeeds on all counts, as the musicians, primarily through Chestnut’s compositional chops, fill his open canvases with layers of color, texture, and a full palette of emotion.


The opening track, “The Brown Soldier,” features Malone coming out of the gate like a swinging hot clubber before Michael Hawkins takes over with a lively bass solo. Malone and Chestnut are well-aligned partners, creating a real toe-tapper with a bluesy undercurrent. Notes Chestnut, “it’s about being a jazz soldier…about always moving forward and always putting a smile on someone’s face with music.” And so it does. “El Numero Tres” (so titled in reference to its repeating sections, played three times each) has a decidedly south-of-the-border rhythm, or perhaps slightly south of Monk with its quick starts and stops that slide into a Caribbean groove. Chestnut knocks out some montuno-like phrases, and the listener can visualize his huge hands playfully attacking the keyboard from top to bottom. Within a trackful of percussive delights, Kroon’s series of conga vamps are particularly effective. While this sort of shifting rhythmic patterns has been part of Chestnut’s vocabulary since “Revelation,” here the additional percussion is more persuasive.

I always liked David Gates’ original rendering of “If.” In the spotlight here, Malone’s lyrical guitar and Chestnut’s soft countermelodies truly move this “Breadwinner” from soft rock to post bop. The two converse back and forth so seamlessly that at times one has to really concentrate to differentiate the two voices. Smith’s cymbal work adds just the right shimmer. Nominate this one for the jazz make-out track of 2006! Sort of staying in ballad mode, “Ellen’s Song” is Chestnut’s love song for his wife. A gentle tune with an elegant melody in the right hand, counter rhythm in the left hand, Kroon pushes it into a light bossa groove, while Chestnut’s glissando-like figures add a blue tinge.

With just the trio, “Mason Dixon Line” crosses into the familiar Chestnut territory of gospel, blues, and post bop. The title not only hints at a crossing into the South but also reflects the aural image of a “train,” as the acceleration and sense of urgency that propel the tune evoke a train heading down the track. Here we get those Oscar Peterson-inspired right-hand keyboard runs and gnarling figures that seem to turn the notes sideways and then toss them up in the air to be reassembled into a new logical line. Neal Smith adds an airy, popping solo. Dedicated to his daughter Jazzmin, Chestnut’s “Baby Girl’s Strut” features a repeating call and response sequence enlivened by the Kroon’s congas. A tour de force for the pianist eclecticism, here Chestnut exudes a Latino vibe one moment, then a blues soul another, then a bop speed machine—a “collective roundtable” according to Chestnut. The piece does strut!!

Roberta Flack took “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” to the top of the charts over 30 years ago, and Chestnut’s arrangement takes it to another level for a new century. Sweetly soulful, the track is well supported by some hearty yet gentle basslines from Hawkins and the underlying rhythmic drive of Kroon’s percussion. At times Chestnut relies on the simplicity of line infused with grace and bluesy soul. Halfway through though, these Delta-informed ruminations give way to filigree, rhythmic shifts, and a dense interplay among right and left hand such that sometimes one would swear that a second piano track has been overdubbed. (But no, it is all “genuine” Chestnut!)Michael Hawkins’ stellar basslines provide a supporting mesh “Eyes on the Prize,” another blues-inspired melody that rises and falls with percussive patterns that create more of a tropical vibe, like a walk through a rain forest. Still in gentle mode, “Through the Valley” starts and ends with beautiful basslines from Hawkins. In between, Chestnut is at his most lyrical, with his most acrobatic phrasing. It glistens.

Fat’s Domino’s “I’m Walking” offers another opportunity for delightful give and take between Malone and Chestnut, the guitar introducing the melody, to be answered by the piano. R&B influences abound as much as blues and gospel. This track is another showcase for Malone who can be as soulful as anyone in the business, and Hawkins takes the title to heart. The closing track is a traditional hymn, “Lord I Give Myself to You.” Clearly gospel inspired, other elements, from classical to blues, help “paint a picture” of majestic serenity, fittingly via solo piano. This is pure Chestnut. Genuine. The real deal.

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