This is serious play at its most elegant and satisfying. Cyrus Chestnut takes on fare ranging from original compositions through the works of Mozart, Ravel, and Satie, along with a hymn (“Lord I Want to Be a Christian”), a classic from the Great American Songbook (“Darn That Dream”), and most audaciously, a scrap from the heavy metal slag heap (Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”), enriching it all with zest, good humor, and unflagging craftsmanship. Chestnut is that rare artist whose work is as welcoming, even reassuring, as it is bold.
The opener, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” sets the tone. Chestnut dances through myriad moods—pop-tinged gaiety (at one point he almost sounds ready to break into “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”), lush romanticism, an elusive but palpable sense of melancholy—with percussive block chords, dashes of soul-jazz churchiness, and bop-tinged angularity, all of which he incorporates into a fully personalized voice.
In fact, casting as wide a net as possible while avoiding dilettantism seems to be one of Chestnut’s primary missions. His reimaginings of the works of Mozart et al. make it sound as if those men were jazz composers to the manner born; the tunes swing with unforced brio, and Chestnut explores their melodic and harmonic implications as effortlessly as if improvising from a fake book. He spices “Darn That Dream” with an impish side trip into “Pop Goes the Weasel,” refusing, as always, to remain fettered to any one emotional or stylistic lodestone. His take on Deep Purple, almost miraculously devoid of irony, recasts the song’s notorious opening riff as a clarion call, a summons to join a quest—a quest on which Chestnut then embarks, transforming one of pop’s most toxic earworms into a thrilling launchpad for improvisation.
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