Cyrus Chestnut's undeniable outpouring of joy

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

It was often said of jazz pianist Fats Waller (1904-1943) that his spirit was so effusive, he could transmit his powerful personality through the slim confines of a record's groove and the scratchy void of a phonograph horn.

"You get that right tickin' rhythm, man, and it's ON!" is one of his famous quotes, date and place long forgotten. You can almost imagine his grin - fingers flying, keyboard melting then bursting into flame.

From the same planet - a land where individuality is key, charm is cosmic and influences stretch out like a spring star chart - comes Baptist-bred, Baltimore-born Cyrus Chestnut. His debut album, 1994's "Revelation," was lauded by the Village Voice's jazz poll and established Chestnut as one of the most exciting young pianists in jazz. His eighth album, 2003's "You Are My Sunshine," dug deeper into his spiritual roots and love of gospel.

Chestnut's trio, with Michael Hawkins on bass and Neal Smith on drums, plays Juneau Jazz & Classics at 8 p.m. Friday, May 28, at Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

"Chestnut can find more joy in a single note than most pianists do with huge handfuls of harmony," wrote the Philadephia Inquirer.

And as with Waller, that spirit just seems to come out. His playing is his personality.

"I've just lived life, and I've tried to play what I feel, what I hear," Chestnut said. "Musically, the story comes out."

Chestnut will be making his first trip to Alaska, outside of an airplane. He stopped at the Anchorage airport once on the way to Korea. Recently, he's played in Washington, D.C., and had a week-long mini-residency in Los Angeles. The crowds in L.A. were clamoring for tracks off "You Are My Sunshine," and it surprised him to hear a cosmopolitan crowd clamoring for reworkings of hymns.

Chestnut's latest writing has borrowed from chamber music, but he doesn't know if he will play those songs in Juneau.

"I'm trying to utilize a lot of different types of sound textures and compositions in a different way than the standard jazz format," Chestnut said. "Some of it is somewhat cerebral, and some is groove-based. I was very pleased with the last record, but that was then, this is now. I've had many life experiences since then."

Chestnut graduated from Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1985 and spent six years working with Jon Hendricks, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Wynton Marsalis. He moved on to a two-year stint with legendary jazz vocalist Betty Carter, a period he credits with helping him develop his view of jazz as self-discovery.

"It doesn't make any sense to play jazz music if you can't state your own point of view," Chestnut said. "That would be a direct slap in the face to the history of jazz. If we don't have a point of view, all we'd be doing is being repertory artists."

"I've always felt the need of being an individual naturally, and so what I do is just a combination of everything that I've experienced," he said. "What's coming out of me is what I feel. It's not a ploy to sell tickets or to sell records and make gobs of money. I live by being who I am. That gives me all the accolades I need."

"Soul Food," Chestnut's seventh record, included versions of a pair of gospel standards, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "Coming Through the Rye." But it also featured as much classical, rhythm and blues and funk.

"Everyone always says that you have this influence and you have that influence, and rather than deal with influences separately, I like to put them together and see what happens," Chestnut said. "I'm listening to anything from Fats Waller to Glenn Gould to Isaac Hayes and Nina Simone. So, you know, I like taking various points of view and forming my own point of view."

In 2000, the year that Peanut cartoonist Charles Schulz retired, Atlantic Records invited Chestnut to recast Vince Guaraldi's "A Charlie Brown Christmas." He jumped at the chance.

"Vince Guaraldi was my first introduction to jazz really, but I did it mainly because I like Charlie Brown," Chestnut said. "I think everybody's got a little Charlie Brown in them."

"You Are My Sunshine" was Chestnut's first on a label, Warner Brothers. He's currently floating, looking for a new contract as he begins to prepare his next album.

"For those who wish to come to the concert, it is my hope that they go away feeling better than when they arrived," Chestnut said. "And it's my intention to just give my musical point of view and leave people feeling very proud of the jazz idiom, which is America's gift to the world. More or less, in a nutshell, I hope they have a good time."



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