Cyrus Chestnut: Genuine Chestnut

It has now been over a decade since Cyrus Chestnut burst out of Baltimore, signed with Atlantic and created a buzz with his chops, exuberance and deep church roots. Chestnut has been harder to find in recent years, and unfortunately his Telarc debut is unlikely to restore him to prominence. In the press notes, Chestnut says, “I now focus a little more on concepts and statements.” The translation is that his tunes now provide accessible hooks and grooves designed for wide appeal.

Here his trio (with Michael Hawkins on bass and Neal Smith on drums) is expanded to a quintet by Russell Malone’s guitar and Steve Kroon’s percussion. Every Malone entrance is a shower of sudden warmth, even on dubious material for jazz like Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” But Chestnut’s piano is content to skim cheerfully along the surface of songs. His version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Roberta Flack’s slow trance of adoration, is incongruously light-hearted.

The problem is not mellowness (although the energy level, on this album with a four-man rhythm section, is sometimes downright somnolent), but that so much of Chestnut’s playing consists of set decorative patterns and licks in the public domain. Genuine Chestnut makes it hard to remember why there was once a buzz about him.

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.