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Cyrus Chestnut: Jazz Hymns, Catholic Tastes

Cyrus Chestnut
Cyrus Chestnut

On first listen, Cyrus Chestnut’s new album, Soul Food (Atlantic), sounds like yet another misguided, young-lions attempt to pretend that it’s still 1959. You know, get some famous friends together-James Carter, Wycliffe Gordon, Gary Bartz, Marcus Printup, Stefon Harris, Lewis Nash and Christian McBride-and play hard bop over blues and swing riffs.

On second and third listens, however, that first impression evaporates. The music here is too fresh, too elemental to wear the retro-jazz suit; there’s nothing secondhand about this music. The 38-year-old pianist is taking his personal experiences with all kinds of music-especially inner-city, street-corner musics far from Berklee or Lincoln Center-and transforming them into jazz. Chestnut, who wrote nine of the 11 tunes, is drawing on his own firsthand experiences with blues, gospel, R&B and classical music. He isn’t imitating the giants from the ’50s, but he is practicing the same sort of alchemy they did.

When Chestnut lends a classical feel to “Cerebral Thoughts,” he’s not imitating Bill Evans; he is offering a jazz interpretation of his years of lessons at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. When he builds “Wellllll!” around an R&B riff, he’s not imitating Jimmy Smith; he’s filtering his own experiences in high school funk bands and his recent collaborations with Isaac Hayes. When he brings a hand-clapping gospel feel to “Brother Hawky Hawk,” he’s not imitating Charles Mingus; Chestnut is borrowing from the church services where he plays almost every Sunday.

To understand just how personal this music is, I join Chestnut on a Sunday morning at the Bethany Baptist Church. This boxy, brick building sits in the middle of a grim Southwest Baltimore housing project. An old white refrigerator stands by the curb, victim of an eviction and reminder of the poverty that stalks this forgotten neighborhood.

Inside the church, though, the blond pews are filled with a stubborn optimism. The ushers wear starchy white uniforms with red berets and white gloves. The children are freshly scrubbed and dressed up as if for a school picture. The men wear dark suits, and the women extravagant hats with the swoops and curves of spaceships from a 1950s sci-fi movie.

Chestnut, very short and very round, is decked out in a dark blue suit and rectangular, gold-framed glasses. Sitting in the front pew before a small electric piano, he joins the organist and drummer to provide the music for the opening processional, the choir hymns, the offertory collection and all the bridging music in between. About an hour into the service, the pianist finally gets a chance for his own solo.

He begins with a Bach quote, dissolves that in a jazzy flourish and introduces the melody from the old spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The hymn starts slowly and solemnly, but gradually gathers momentum. Soon all manner of embellishments and harmony notes are swarming around the melody like moths around a lamp. Chestnut takes the melody on further and further tangents from the familiar tune, but he always comes home to remind the congregation of the original melody before taking off again.

For all its virtuoso dazzle, however, the tune has a story to tell. It’s a hymn about death, and Chestnut captures the sadness of losing a loved one in his reluctant, bluesy opening. But gradually, wordlessly, he transforms those same blues chords into a confident celebration of the heavenly paradise promised to all good Christians. After all, that’s where the chariot of the song wants to take us.

After he climaxes with trilling right-hand triplets over a stomping march beat in the left hand, his fellow churchgoers give Chestnut a standing ovation.

Then they sit down and the pastor proceeds with the birth announcements.

The next day Chestnut is in a brick row house near Herring Run Park in East Baltimore. Though the pianist now lives in the Bronx, he visits his hometown often and this house is his base. The award-winning pianist has just finished mowing the lawn and folding the laundry, and he collapses onto the couch in his denim shorts and striped polo shirt.

“When I played ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ yesterday,” he explains, “I used that Erroll Garner thing of playing a lot of different quotes in the introduction before I settled on the main theme. If you heard me play it today, it would be different than it was yesterday and next week it would be different again.”

A solo version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is included on Soul Food, and it is indeed different from the church performance.

“I always keep myself open to any last-minute inspiration because I thrive in the realm of spontaneity. I’m not a play-it-safe guy on stage; sometimes you fall on your face, but then you just turn up the burners and get out of the mess you’ve created.

“As long as there is a theme, there can always be variations,” Chestnut insists, “whether it’s a jazz standard, a pop song or a gospel hymn. I’m like a minister giving his sermon. He will state his theme; he’ll improvise variations on that theme; he’ll take it to a high point, and then he’ll make his closing statement. I’m doing the same thing at the piano.

“That’s why I still like playing in church, because church is all about telling stories. That’s why it’s called inspirational music. You want as much facility with your instrument as you can get, but if you develop technique just for technique’s sake, that’s what you become-a technician. Those who fall into theoretical concepts end up playing those concepts rather than telling a story about life. That’s what I want to do-tell a story about life.”

With church playing such a large part in Chestnut’s life it’s not surprising that “Brother Hawky Hawk” is an original tune that takes its cue from the offertory procession at Bethany Baptist Church or at Mount Calvary Church, Chestnut’s childhood church in Baltimore. “That takes me back to the processions,” he agrees, “to the ushers, the tapping of the feet, the clapping of the hands, the shaking of the tambourines, a certain time and place.” He smiles broadly at the memory.

“Everyone on this record had a similar church background. I had to have Wycliffe [Gordon] on ‘Brother Hawky Hawk,’ because that’s him. I had to have James [Carter], because I know he can wail.”

James Carter says, “The church that really connected with me musically was my Aunt Campbell’s Church of God in Christ on the East Side of Detroit. On Sunday mornings, at 11 o’clock on the nose, the organ would sweep by, the drums would start that groove and you’d get this holy-roller sensation as the choir marched up the aisle, singing ‘Peace Be Still.’

“That music has always been there in my playing. Sometimes it leads to long solos, and so-called grandstanding, but that’s the way I grew up,” Carter says. “Cyrus has this same down-home quality but with the kind of chordal densities and rhythmic spacing that really makes you think. You can be soulful with just block chords, but to be soulful and have extended harmonies at the same time is something else again. That’s something he and I share.”

Chestnut has studied at the Peabody Conservatory and the Berklee School of Music, and he was the pianist for Jon Hendricks, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, Wynton Marsalis and Betty Carter before becoming a leader in his own right. But his musical training began at Mount Calvary Baptist Church.

“I got a great musical education at Mount Calvary,” Chestnut claims. “I had instruction in ear training, arrangement and improvisation. They didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. It wasn’t until I went to an official music school that I realized how much I had already learned in church.

“In church, someone would start singing without ever telling you what key the song was in. I’d just have to listen and start playing along. That was my ear training. I had to take the basic chord progressions of gospel and adapt them to fit the song. That was arrangement. But nothing was set in stone, and you were always changing things around to fit the moment. That was improvisation.”

Gospel isn’t the only source material employed on Soul Food. The title track and “Wellllll!” both boast punchy R&B horn riffs and finger-snapping grooves played by a full sextet.

“I grew up loving those R&B horn bands like Earth, Wind & Fire,” Chestnut confesses. “On ‘Wellllll!’ I wanted to use the horns like a horn section and let the melody be my responsibility as if I were the singer.

“A few years ago,” he adds, “I was playing a benefit concert for WBGO-FM at the Blue Note Cafe in New York, and I saw someone coming up to the bandstand. I said to myself, ‘That looks like Isaac Hayes; I hope I remember how to play “Shaft.”‘ It was Isaac, but he said he wanted to do ‘The Shadow of Your Smile.’

“It went so well that we did a concert together in St. Louis and we’re going to do several more this winter with my trio and Gary Bartz. We’ll do jazz standards but also some pop tunes like ‘The Look of Love’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ It’s fun to play something different. I don’t ever want to limit myself as to what I can’t play.”

All the influences on Soul Food are transformed by Chestnut’s ever-more-impressive abilities as a composer. He has that rare ability to invent melodies that stick in the ear, whether it’s the bluesy swagger of “Wellllll!,” the angular, Monklike motifs on “Brother With the Mint Green Vine” and “Fantasia” or the lyrical romanticism of “Cerebral Thoughts” and “In the Underground.”

Chestnut isn’t content to come up with one such melody per tune; he usually creates two or three. Nor is he content to merely state the head and let the soloists go to work on it; he has structured the pieces so the material develops from start to finish.

“I don’t like pieces that are just a head and solos,” he argues. “My pieces have to tell a story. You have to tell a story by starting at point A, going to point B and ending up at point C. For example, in writing ‘In the Underground,’ I imagined myself going down a road that suddenly shifts and takes you through dark woods where the path is overgrown with weeds. After a while, though, you come out into the sun again and the path is smooth.

“For me my whole career is an adventure in learning how to tell better stories. Every color in every composition should relate to a specific emotion. I’m trying to define who Cyrus Chestnut is by synthesizing all my experiences-classical, jazz, gospel, R&B-into a whole.”

In addition to his concerts with Isaac Hayes, Chestnut will do a few dates with cabaret singer Ann Hampton Callaway, whom he accompanied on the 1996 album, To Ella With Love. But he will spend most of the winter supporting Soul Food with his current trio, which features drummer Neal Smith and new bassist Michael Hawkins.

“I’ve never been in a situation where someone told me to play like another person,” he notes, “and I’m not about to start now. Betty Carter used to tell me, ‘I don’t need to hear Miles Davis’ “If I Were a Bell”; I was there when it happened. I’ve heard it a thousand times; I don’t need to hear it the 1,001st time. I want to hear what you have to say.’

“Betty always told me that jazz is about finding out who you are. And it was in her band that I started to figure out who Cyrus Chestnut was and what he had to say. Why is there a gospel influence in my music? Because I grew up in the church. Why is there a classical influence in my music? Because I took lessons at Peabody. I learned to be as honest as I could in my playing and to bring everything I am to the music.

“Betty told me that when I was done with her, I would be ready to go out on my own. And she was right.”



Chestnut’s favorite instrument for recording these days is a Yamaha acoustic grand piano that he rents from the company’s Manhattan showroom. “I like it because it’s very natural, not too colorful,” he explains. “I want to supply the colors when I play; I don’t want the piano to do it for me. I want the piano to be an extension of myself.” At home he practices on a 1924 Knabe baby grand that he found 10 years ago in an old warehouse. He doesn’t own any electric keyboards at the moment, though he has in the past and may again in the future. He does travel with a Yamaha QY-70, “a little gizmo that I use for composition on the road.”

Originally Published