The Jazz.com Blog
April 28, 2009 · 2 comments
Roanna Forman serves as jazz.com's "ears on the ground" in Boston. She recently reported in this column on performances by Jerry Bergonzi, Stan Sagov, Jimmy Heath and Brad Mehldau. Now she reviews Cyrus Chestnut’s recent appearance at Sculler’s. T.G.
Cyrus Chestnut is a pianist who holds the history of his instrument in his hands, with a command of jazz and classical idioms that comes from decades of playing (and this in a man under 50), and a genuine love and respect for that history. He projects the sense that jazz, like a tree, will only sustain its growth by keeping its roots fully nourished—unlike certain “jazz icons among us,” who, as Ben Ratcliff of The New York Times recently noted in his article on the documentary series by that name, advocate starting jazz study with the last 15 years. From there, they say, backtrack, not putting too much emphasis on the “old masters”—so as not to lose one’s own identity.
Cyrus Chestnut, who seems to have embraced everything from Bach to Bill Evans to Elvis, has definitely maintained his identity. With a set of almost all original compositions, Chestnut’s solidly burnished pianistic talent was a delight to hear on April 25 at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston. He opened showcasing his great technique on the bouncy uptempo straight-ahead “Slick Steps,” rolling arpeggios to the top register, harmonizing meandering phrases around the keyboard, inserting polyrhythms, and popping left hand accents over fluid lines. When a tune called for it, he would switch from clean technique to the slurpiest groove, with tremolos or an ostinato over a voice-led left-hand solo. You had to see how long that right-hand figure was repeated to appreciate the accomplishment; it’s kind of like an Olympic swimmer making it to the end of the pool underwater in one breath.
On “Twelve Bar Ballad” he alternated a liquid legato with a crisp staccato, demonstrating years of classical training that other pianists, from Oscar Peterson to Herbie Hancock, have also based their jazz platforms on. There was no modal work to speak of, and not a lot of dissonance. Generally, Chestnut is not dissonant or strongly percussive. He is unabashedly pretty when it suits him, as in the melancholy “Charade” or “Love Me Tender,” a rendition that took the Elvis tune to another level.
Besides the ballads, a fast-paced “Blue Bossa,” and a light, sexy closing number, the tunes drew on funk, gospel and Latin influences. The beat was sometimes heavily syncopated, then moved into a straight-ahead feel for the solos. In the bluesy funk piece “The Brown Soldier,” Cyrus’s fast, repeated pentatonics and climbing runs gave way to a tasteful smooth groove on Ameen Saleem’s solo. Saleem has a fat but lithe sound and stands out for his melodic solos and solid time. Drummer Neal Smith did seem to play a bit heavily, which was surprising in a trio with a pianist as nuanced as Cyrus Chestnut.
A solo piano piece drawing from gospel, classical and jazz influences used rich voicings and chromatics in a personal statement that may draw from Cyrus Chestnut’s strong religious beliefs, and also showed a level of artistry that audiences might enjoy in a solo piano tour not unlike Keith Jarrett’s or Brad Mehldau’s. Granted, he is a very different kind of pianist, but wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear the music he made in less conventional setting with more improvisational emphasis? He might find this as an opportunity to deepen and widen his own musical identity.
This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman