July 28, 2021

a messenger of God with swing and in a jazzera key

On the podium of the great pianists of the international jazz scene, Cyrus Chestnut is an artist of a superlative technique crossed by a moving gospel touch acquired in his childhood and that time has not managed to blur. A highly versatile musician, he ranks as one of the modern pianists who, without forgetting tradition, developed his own style. Definitely, gospel and jazz make an excellent pairing in the hands of Chestnut, which will be presented as a quintet and a duo, Friday 20 and Saturday 21 September, on Bebop.

Chestnut respects tradition but manages to enrich it creatively, which in his music is equivalent to talking about freedom. It refers us to a style chiseled by artists such as Art Tatum, Bud Powell or Oscar Peterson to which it adds an exquisite treatment of space and time. He played with Freddie Hubbard, Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, James Carter and Joe Lovano, but who marked him with an indelible mark was the great singer Betty Carter. “Playing with her was like feeling that she received me as a musician,” he says.

Born in January 1963, in Baltimore, at age three he began playing the piano and at five he was playing at Mount Calvany Evangelical Church, where his father was an organist. “I saw my father play and I just wanted to do what he was doing.” Chestnut has a markedly religious side. “I grew up playing in the church and being part of the churches is what I am.. I feel God up and down the stage and in everything I do; I consider him as the great teacher of music and I am very grateful to be one of God’s messengers through music; it’s a great honor for me”.

Cyrus Chestnut regards God as a great music teacher. (Photo: Fernando de la Orden)

Between 1992 and 2019 he released 27 albums, one per year, and they all have that original tone that both his compositions and his arrangements manage to convey. He was slow to launch himself as a soloist; at the age of 31 he edited The Nutman Speaks (1992), a work with Cristian McBride on double bass and Carl Allen on drums with a cover of Caravan, with an original approach; two years later he attracted attention with Revelation, and in 1996 with Another Direction. All in a trio and with an innovative spirit that led him to be considered the great pianistic revelation of that time.

Other high-quality works were Cyrus Chestnut (1998) with Joe Lovano, James Carter and Anita Baker, as guests; Soul Food (2001), with Mc Bride and Lewis Nash on drums, Genuine Chestnut (2006), in a quartet with guitarist Russell Malone; an excellent tribute to Elvis Presley Cyrus Plays Elvis (2008) or an extraordinary review of classics in Midnight Melodies (2014), in a trio with Curtis Lundy and Victor Lewis, and a modern and delicious Kaleidoscope (2018), also in a trio. In 1995 he made his acting debut playing the role of a young Count Basie in the film Kansas City, the Robert Altman.

-What would be the keys when improvising?

-I try to find good melodies. Everything you play has to have an intention and I like to feel when I improvise that I am a spontaneous composer, a composer in real time. Improvisation is really good when you’re creating in the moment, and you hear that.

-How would you define yourself as a composer? How do you prepare your music?

-Composition happens for me in two different ways. One is with the piano and another, which is the one I prefer, away from the instrument, that is, without the piano to really hear the melodies in my head and not feel them once I have already played them on the piano. My tendency is to compose without anything and then check how they look on the piano. Sometimes it happens to me that I am at the piano and a melody comes but I always try to do it without the piano because it feels more organic. It is in this way that I am influenced by life, and not by the instrument. The rhythm of the subway, the birds, the wind, seeing something, are always opportunities to get to compose a melody.

"The rhythm of the subway, the birds, the wind", everything is an opportunity to create a melody.  (Photo: Fernando de la Orden)

“The rhythm of the underground, the birds, the wind”, everything is an opportunity to create a melody. (Photo: Fernando de la Orden)

-Much of his career he did as a trio, but in Buenos Aires he will play in a quintet and a duo. What changes does it make in the materials you usually play?

I like all formats because they all have their challenge. In Buenos Aires we will do some original compositions, some original arrangements of standards and some arrangements that appear on the stage itself and it is even possible that he will do a classic.

-Can they touch Gymnopédie N ° 1by Erik Satie? (theme included in the last album of the pianist Kaleidoscope).

-It’s very possible.

Chestnut announced that he is writing new compositions although he is not sure if it will be to do them in a trio or with another formation. Regarding his concerts in Buenos Aires, he points out that he has something prepared to propose, but that he wants to hear how they sound in a group. “The most important thing is to find a good artistic and above all human disposition. We have to make music come to life. It does not matter so much how they are playing but that the music comes to life and that the audience leaves the club happier than they entered ”, he adds.

La Master Class, de Betty

“Betty Carter came to give a master class at Berklee in 1984. I was almost a graduate, and she talked and talked, and half fell asleep, until when she finished they started asking her to sing. ‘I don’t have a pianist,’ he said, and then someone behind me yelled ‘Cyrus’, and everyone started yelling my name. He had no alternative, so I stopped and asked if I liked jazz. I answered yes and went to the piano. My first fear was that he would ask me for a song that he did not know, but he proposed to do Body & SoulOnly before I got to the piano I changed the tonality. He told me: ‘We do it in the sun’. That made me very nervous. I remember that I was shaking and I no longer even remembered the first chord. All he knew had gone to lunch. I was left alone (laughs), I made a mistake and played a part in C. I ended the subject with an unhappy feeling, but received applause from the whole room. I was confused because there were so many musicians in the audience. And I was more confused when Betty approached me and said: ‘Marvelous!’ And he gave me a hug. That same afternoon I went to one of the practice rooms and played Body & Soul, en sol ”, recalls Chestnut, who was part of Carter’s band for two years and three months, participated in the album It’s Not About the Melody and admits to having grown not only artistically but emotionally by his side.

“It prompted me to want to be more personal and move out of those comfortable places that we can turn to. In jazz, there are two musicians who went to school, Art Blakey and Betty Carter ”, he added.

Cyrus Chestnut Quintet will perform on Friday 20, at 9 p.m. and Saturday 21, at 11:15 p.m. and the Cyrus Chestnut Duo, on Friday 20, at 11:15 p.m. and Saturday 21, at 9 p.m., at Bebop, Moreno 364. Admission $ 650.