Jazzman refuses to repeat himself Music: It's always something different for pianist Cyrus Chestnut in his endless push to improve with each note.

July 19, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Cyrus Chestnut takes no satisfaction in being told he sounds the way he does on record or the same as his last performance. For him such comments suggest stagnation.

The Baltimore-born jazz pianist's interest lies in progressing, improving, working toward mastery. He does not want to be a juke box.

"Too many times you go to a concert and you hear the record. You hear people playing the records. Even if I'm playing tunes off of my record, they're going to be different," Chestnut says during a telephone interview from the Hotel Hesperia in Barcelona, Spain.

"I appreciate the fact that people like what I do, but if they heard me once, hopefully the next time they will hear something different."

Today, Chestnut, 33, will give the home folks a chance to hear his latest offerings as his trio gives a brief afternoon performance at Bibelot in Pikesville, then heads downtown for an evening Artscape concert.

The stop will not give him enough time to visit family. By Saturday, he'll be in Columbus, Ohio. The road seems never-ending.

"It's all such a blur, I don't hardly remember it," he says, a bit of fatigue in his voice. He had just arrived in Barcelona, having finished a series of dates in Montreux, Switzerland.

He is pushing his latest album, "Earth Stories." It is dedicated to his grandmother, Ruth Britton, who died recently.

"She was such a gem. She always made me laugh. I never remember a time when I would be around her and I didn't laugh," he says. "She always liked to do right by folk and she always encouraged me to do likewise."

His tribute to her is a slow blues, a deceptively simple form. Some players approach the style with a blizzard of notes and dizzying technical virtuosity. In "Grandmama's Blues," Chestnut tries for an approach closer to B. B. King's -- sincere, spare, eloquent. It's not easy to play a slow blues and keep the music close to the heart. That requires a disciplined hand.

"It's said of young musicians that we don't know how to play the blues," says Chestnut, who found a great challenge in the piece. "I wanted to play a nice, slow blues, nothing up-tempo, just right smack dab in the middle of it."

By turns funky and lowdown as a smoky after-hours club, "Grandmama's Blues" shows some of Chestnut's phenomenal skills. He has been working at the keyboard for 28 years, starting at age 5 with his father, McDonald Chestnut. He studied at the Peabody Preparatory Institute and earned a certificate in piano and music theory.

He followed that experience with four years at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating with a degree in jazz composition and arranging.

The past decade has been spent on the road, the musician's proving ground. He has played with Jon Hendricks, the Terence Blanchard/Donald Harrison quintet, and Wynton Marsalis, and developed a technique that has won him accolades while allowing him to bring an incredible range of musical color to his work.

But, technique isn't an end in itself. Chestnut has no interest in being flashy.

"I don't want to win people over by tricks. I would rather people be won over by my skillfully playing music, using skill over tricks," he says.

"I remember [Betty Carter] saying, 'You can't just use all those tricks. That ain't no music. That's just a trick.' "

Chestnut spent two years backing Carter and credits her with influencing his approach to performance and interpretation.

"She has a very unique way of inspiring one to push forward and try something new, try something you haven't tried before," he says.

Their collaboration on the 1992 album "It's Not About the Melody" showcases that desire to make even the most tried-and-true jazz standard sound startingly fresh and new. Chestnut believes in spontaneity, the inspired moment of improvisation.

"I have a structure, but the structure is dependent on the energy of what's going on at the time," he says. "The idea is to share my thoughts musically and hopefully the final result is something that will be interesting to me and to the audience."

After the current tour, Chestnut plans to take a break, collect his thoughts, write down some of the music that has been building up in his head. He might break out of the trio format and try a sextet.

"Earth Stories" was going to be more along that line with funky, horn-oriented tunes like "Cooldaddy's Perspective" being the rule, but things changed in the studio. Spontaneity took over. He stayed with the trio.

A solo album of spirituals and hymns has been recorded and could be out later this year. "Earth Stories" ends with a peaceful, solo piano rendition of the old spiritual, "In the Garden."

"The spirituals are a part of my life," says Chestnut, a fondness and sense of satisfaction entering his voice when he speaks of the solo album. "Just me, the Steinway and the microphone.

"Some of the renditions may be radical, but I'll just approach them in different ways, instead of the usual way."

Cyrus Chestnut will be performing at noon at Bibelot, 8129 Reisterstown Road, and at 7 p.m. as part of Artscape at the Fox Stage, Lafayette and Mount Royal avenues.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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