A Local Jazzman's Beautiful 'Spirit'

December 20, 2009|By DAN RODRICKS

Cyrus Chestnut doesn't blow his own horn much. Besides, it's not his instrument. He has always come across as a shy and modest guy who does most of his talking with a keyboard. And that could explain, at least in part, why he's still not exactly an international celebrity.

He's played all over, and with some of the biggest names in music. At 46, he has more than a dozen recordings on major labels, including a deeply soulful new one titled "Spirit." Jazz followers are familiar with Mr. Chestnut, and critics have said extravagantly positive things about him.

But it's not enough.

What we have here is a true virtuoso, and a native of Baltimore, who deserves the world's attention - and whom the world deserves to hear.

Oprah - you've had Miley Cyrus on; it's time to book Cyrus Chestnut.

I don't know that "Spirit" will be a breakout album for him - I had thought that, for its marketability, "Cyrus Chestnut Plays Elvis" (2007) might have been - but certainly his new recording shows why many regard Mr. Chestnut as the best pianist of his generation.

I would be more specific and say "best jazz pianist," but that would set Mr. Chestnut off in an exclusive corner of the salon, when he belongs in the main hall.

One hears in his smart stylings not only the gospel sounds at the root of his very being, but classic - some say nostalgic - jazz adorned with utterly uninhibited improvisations, flashes of pop and bop, whimsy and wit.

Spirit is a solo album, which is why it would make a good Chestnut starter for the uninitiated, Christian or not, believer or not.

But, here's a remarkable thing about it: In several of the tracks, it sounds as though two pianists are at work.

I'm not the only one who had this impression upon first hearing. Longtime music critic Geoffrey Himes noticed Mr. Chestnut switching hands, with his right playing the melody over left-handed chords in one verse, then the left taking the lead in the second. This was most obvious in Mr. Chestnut's performance of "Wade In The Water," the traditional spiritual.

"By the fourth verse," Mr. Himes wrote in the City Paper recently, "each hand is pursuing a different melody with different phrasing, as if two very different musicians were playing a duet. The right hand seems light and happy, as if basking in the joys of Christian faith, while the left seems to be straining every muscle as it wrestles with temptation and sin."

One hears the same handiwork in "Lean On Me" - Mr. Chestnut maintains with one hand his own version of the dominant base line of that 70s pop song, while turning it into a spiritual with the other. He presents Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in the same way, embellishing the song with more ethereal beauty while keeping the melodies recognizable.

In fact, that's true of all the tracks on "Spirit." Mr. Chestnut, whose father played organ at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Baltimore and whose mother directed the choir, respects the old songs - "Lift Every Voice And Sing," "All Creatures Of Our God And King," "Oh How I Love Jesus," "The Lord's Prayer" - so that his stylings never diminish their foundations in faith. In fact, they enhance them; they breathe new life into them.

And it's all genuine. This music comes from the bones. As cool and as worldly as Mr. Chestnut is now, he's never strayed far from his gospel roots. His remarkable interpretation of the hymn "Sweet Hour of Prayer," from an album he recorded 15 years ago, still has the power to take the breath away. There was another album of gospel music in 1996.

Now, "Spirit" seems to be the culmination of everything: Mr. Chestnut's life story and all his hard work to develop an original style as free and as open as jazz is supposed to be.

The quiet boy who grew up listening to all that church music on Sundays in Baltimore has returned to it a man - still a quiet man - with a unique artistic identity developed over the last 30 years, and the results are beautiful.

Cyrus Chestnut performs with the Warren Wolf Quartet on Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. at An die Musik Live, 409 N. Charles St.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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