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Cyrus Chestnut: You Are My Sunshine

Whether it’s a smoldering ballad, rollicking blues or burning gospel, Cyrus Chestnut knows how to induce a smile. An expressive pianist who keenly balances jaw-dropping virtuosity with pithy lyricism, he imbues every note with shimmering emotion. His gospel-drenched and aptly named new CD, You Are My Sunshine, features him in his most ideal setting, the trio.

Complemented by the supple, empathic support of drummer Neal Smith and bassist Michael Hawkins, Chestnut delves deep into the gospel tradition, injecting classics such as Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” and Isaiah Jones Jr.’s “God Has Smiled on Me” with a modern sense of groove and improvisational zest. Always mindful of the melody and a master at orchestral dynamics, Chestnut never lets his technical prowess overwhelm the material. Oftentimes, he builds his solos similar to the way a Southern preacher crafts a sermon: heated testimonials with conversational asides. Chestnut, though, avoids explosive mayhem, even during the more spirited moments, such as the midsection of “God Has Smiled on Me,” where he hammers out thick chords underneath knuckle-busting filigrees, or on his propulsive original “Lighthearted Intelligence,” where Chestnut blasts into high gear as his writhing melody uncoils with suspenseful turnaround passages.

Still playing piano at church in his native city of Baltimore, Chestnut knows the powers of emotional directness. On delightful tunes such as his waltzing original “Hope Song” and Richard Smallwood’s elegiac “Total Praise,” Chestnut aims straight for the heart and fills it with the warmth of a perfect Easter Morning Sunday. There are also hints of late Saturday night frolicking on “Erroling,” his whimsical homage to Erroll Garner, and Chestnut’s groove-driven take on Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.” But even then, his gospel-infused enthusiasm reveals his saintly glow.

Originally Published