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Cyrus Chestnut: Midnight Melodies

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Hot on the heels of a half-dozen albums released earlier in the year, Smoke Sessions follows that run up with new titles from three of the most popular and creative pianists in jazz. Like those earlier releases, these too were cut live at New York’s Smoke, a matchbox of an Upper West Side supper club known for its living-room atmosphere and ace mainstream bookings.

Of the three pianists featured on the new titles, Cyrus Chestnut is the only one who chooses to work within the tried-and-true trio format, aligning with bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis. That rhythm battery collaborated for a time with the late John Hicks, and Chestnut, for his first live recording, uses the occasion partly to pay tribute to one of his piano inspirations. Two ripping Hicks numbers, “Two Heartbeats” and “Pocket Full of Blues,” open the show on an uptempo note and another, a nearly 15-minute-long rumination on “Naima’s Love Song”-nearly half of it played solo by Chestnut-serves as the penultimate selection. Lewis contributes two originals and Chestnut only one, the remainder of the set comprising inspired interpretations of Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” a pair of Strayhorns and Miles’ “The Theme,” the lattermost largely a vehicle for band intros. The Trane cover is particularly savage, Chestnut’s breakneck run passed along to Lewis, whose manic solo must have had them dancing outside on Broadway.

Eric Reed, for his turn, meets up with saxophonist Seamus Blake, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, concentrating primarily on a set of originals, save for the opener, Clifford Jordan’s “Powerful Paul Robeson,” and Christian McBride’s “The Shade of the Cedar Tree,” the latter a tribute to Cedar Walton written long before the pianist’s death. In his liner notes, Reed talks about the difficulty of assembling this quartet for the Smoke date, given everyone’s hectic schedules, and notes that everyone “brought their ‘A’ games.” That proves an honest assessment throughout, especially on the funky set-closing title track and “Manhattan Melodies,” the title track of a previous album, released in 1999 with Hutchinson onboard. The reprise takes off at a good clip and systematically winds down into a game of tag as Reed and the rhythm section get frisky.

Orrin Evans’ Liberation Blues is dedicated to the late bassist Dwayne Burno, and leads off with the ambitious, heart-rending and often quite thrilling Liberation Blues Suite. Of its five parts, the first two are contrasting yet synergetic Burno compositions, “Devil Eyes” and “Juanita,” a swinger and a melancholic ballad that allow each member of the quintet-Evans, tenor saxophonist JD Allen, trumpeter Sean Jones, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Bill Stewart-multiple opportunities to shine. But equally affecting are Evans’ originals, both within the suite and following, and the group’s freewheeling workup of Paul Motian’s “Mumbo Jumbo” and the standards “How High the Moon” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” That last one, the encore, features vocalist Joanna Pascale, who’s worked with Evans often. It opens up a whole other set of possibilities and sensibilities.

Originally Published