Baltimore native's surprise-filled style a 'Revelation' to jazz listeners

February 25, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

It isn't often a jazz musician gets a launch as enthusiastic as the one Cyrus Chestnut is enjoying. Since the release of "Revelation," his aptly titled debut album, the young pianist has been the talk of the jazz world. The critics seem particularly smitten, offering the kind of praise that would give even the most self-effacing player a swelled head.

Naturally, Chestnut hardly objects to the attention. But rather than take those rave reviews as proof of his own magnificence, the Baltimore-born musician prefers to see them as setting the pace for future efforts.

"It's great to know I'm doing something that's gathering some interest," he says, over the phone from his New York apartment, "but I'm not bathing in it. I look at this as just a beginning. When a person writes something or a person gets the record or a person comes out to see me, I just feel charged to step up to that standard, or even go further beyond.

"Five years from now, I'm hoping to have the same buzz, if not a more fervent buzz. I'm more concerned about going further, not to say, 'I've arrived, and I'm here now.' "

Chestnut didn't arrive on the scene overnight, of course. Since graduating from Boston's Berklee School of Music in 1985, he's played with a wide array of jazz performers, including Jon Hendricks, George Adams, Wynton Marsalis, Courtney Pine, Steve Turre, the Terence Blanchard/Donald Harrison quintet, and singer Betty Carter, with whom he truly came to prominence.

"I covered quite a bit of ground," Chestnut laughs. "But I don't want to limit myself, to put blinders on and say, 'I'm only going to play this type of music.' I believe everyone has a certain statement, and it's all worth checking out.

"I don't necessarily want to call myself a jack of all trades," he adds. "I just like to keep myself open to various different types of things. It helps me a lot when I can sit down and play [a different kind of music] myself. Because then, whatever musical experiences I can have, I can diffuse into something personal."

Chestnut is particularly interested in the element of surprise, in dancing around a listener's expectations and taking the music someplace new.

"I like using an approach that makes the standard tunes not sound so standard anymore," he says. "Too many times, you play a tune and you know where the changes fall, and you just kind of dot every 'i' and cross every 't.' Everything is as expected, and there's not really a lot of thought.

"So when you come up and change something a little bit, you have to get back in and do your part again and not just stroll along. It keeps everyone involved, so when the set is done or the record is over, a person will have felt something, will have reacted to something. I like reactions."

Chestnut's harmonic ingenuity may put the spark in his playing, but the real razzle-dazzle lies with his technique. An astonishing, accomplished pianist, he's capable of bravura effects and subtle shadings that go well beyond the monochromatic norm of most jazz keyboardists.

He credits his early training at the Peabody Preparatory School with much of that, adding that he feels a particular affinity for the work of Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. But for the most part, his command of the keyboard is the product of practice, practice and more practice.

"It's just a lot of hard work, man," he says. "I just have to keep going at it. But I love playing the piano. I mean, I really love %J playing the piano. I hope one day to really master it -- but only five minutes before I die.

"Just let me get there five minutes before I get out of here, and then I'll be fine."

Cyrus Chestnut

When: Tonight and Saturday night, 9:30

Where: The New Haven Lounge

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 366-7416

Keys to success

Why is Cyrus Chestnut the talk of the jazz world? Why do fans feel his debut album, "Revelation," is such an eye-opener? Hear for yourself by calling Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; 836-5028 in Harford County; 848-0338 in Carroll County. Using a touch-tone telephone, punch in the four-digit code 6179 after you hear the greeting.

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