PortFolio Weekly
August 13, 2002

Soulful Cyrus

by Jim Newsom

Cyrus Chestnut started his musical career at the age of seven, playing piano at Calvary Star Baptist Church in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. During the intervening thirty-two years, he has developed into one of the most highly respected pianists in jazz. Hampton Roads jazz aficionados have a chance to bear witness to his talents Friday night, August 16, at the Roper Performing Arts Center. "The nutman" and his trio will perform in the kickoff concert of Jazz on Granby's second season, a show that is also a cornerstone of this year's Jazz Norfolk celebration.

Chestnut's roots in the church are evident in his personal musical style, a blend of gospel, classical, bebop and stride piano, with a dollop of New Orleans funk thrown in for spice. There is joy in his music, and a willingness to stretch himself in challenging directions.

After earning a degree in Jazz Composition and Arranging from Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1985, Cyrus Chestnut spent several years as a sideman for legends Jon Hendricks and Betty Carter, and young lions Wynton Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard and Donald Harrison. His time with Ms. Carter was especially noteworthy, and he subsequently signed with Atlantic Records, where his debut, Revelation, was one of the hottest jazz albums of 1994.

The following year, he recorded with opera singer Kathleen Battle on her disc, So Many Stars. The two found a connection through their mutual backgrounds in the church.

"One day in the studio, she started singing a hymn," he stated in an interview about the project. "I knew immediately what she was singing and, for a minute, we were just back in a small Baptist church with wood floors and an upright piano."

That year, Chestnut released his own jazz trio album, Dark Before the Dawn, that included "Baroque Impressions," an original piece inspired by Bach. Earth Stories followed in 1996, after which he recorded Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols. His self-titled 1998 release garnered rave reviews as he further honed his soulful virtuosity.

Along the way, he found time to record with Freddy Cole, Kevin Mahogany, Bette Midler and Jimmy Scott. He also played on three CDs by our own Jae Sinnett--- Blue Jae, House and Sinnett and Listen. He made his cinematic acting debut as a Count Basie-inspired pianist in Robert Altman's film, Kansas City, and worked with Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Besides his trio work, he has given solo recitals across the country, and played with several major symphony orchestras.

Two years ago, Chestnut put out a Christmas album, an update of Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas that featured an all-star cast of jazz notables including Michael Brecker, Manhattan Transfer and Vanessa Williams performing the songs from that classic TV special.

Chestnut's latest recording, Soul Food, is a tasty smorgasbord of mostly original compositions that move from the laid-back musings of "Cerebral Thoughts" to the whimsical high spiritedness of "Brother Hawky Hawk." In addition to Chestnut on piano, the core trio includes bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. The three are joined by vibist Stefon Harris on three tracks, and expand to a sextet on three others with the addition of hornmen Marcus Printup, Wycliffe Gordon and James Carter.

The lengthy title cut brings to mind the nonpareil Blue Note blowing sessions of the early 60s. "Brother With the Mint Green Vine" is the essence of low-key funk, stylistically reminiscent of Joe Sample's trio work. Chestnut takes an introspective solo walk through the gospel warhorse, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," then lights a blazing flame beneath his own "Minor Funk." Another solo piece, "Coming Through the Rye" is simply beautiful, and "In the Underground" recalls Vince Guaraldi's sparse, distinctive style.

Soul Food is a superb addition to Chestnut's classy catalog, and whets the aural appetite for Friday night's concert at the Roper. Reviews of previous performances indicate Chestnut and his rhythm section will offer an eclectic and far-reaching set that will run the gamut of his many influences, from Charlie Brown to Duke Ellington, cool jazz to hard bop, classical to southern Gospel.

Cyrus Chestnut is considered by many to be the finest jazz pianist of his generation. On Friday night, he'll demonstrate why

copyright 2002 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.