by Michael Goldberg
Monday, May 5, 2003
Cyrus Chestnut Keeps The Home Fires Burning
A jazz traditionalist with a style all his own
Cyrus Chestnut is a large man (who appears to weigh in at over 300 pounds) who plays the piano with the grace of an angel. At the intimate Oakland jazz club Yoshi's on the eve of the first day in May, he walked out onto the stage wearing a light brown suit and an neon orange dress shirt with matching orange polka dot tie; he bowed, and then proceeded to take those of us lucky enough to witness his performance up to the heavens.
But Chestnut's performance also raised questions about the current state of jazz and its future. Is jazz a music that is continuing to evolve, as it was into the '70s? Or has it, like other now essentially "dead" genres such as blues and ska, stopped breaking new ground? What happens when there is nowhere really new for a music to go, when the broad strokes have been established, and what's left for new artists is simply to impose their style on what can now be viewed as traditional structures?
A skilled musician with a degree from Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music who began playing at age 5, Chestnut, at 41, has been recording solo albums for just 10 years not long in the world of jazz (consider McCoy Tyner, who's been making solo albums since 1962, or Keith Jarrett, whose been recording solo since '67). And if you're not a jazz head interested in contemporary jazz, you've likely never heard of him.
At Yoshi's, Chestnut, who plays hard bop and post-bop (and, at times, just plain old-school bop) was accompanied by a fine rhythm section: Michael Hawkins on stand-up bass and Neil Smith on drums. Certainly the trio had their moments, when all three men were totally in sync, wailing away, managing to create new, improvised music on the spot. Yet despite some showboating from Smith, and several intense solos from Hawkins, the show was all about Chestnut. The real action was taking place at the keyboard, and he might as well have been up there alone at a Steinway so large it dwarfed even the big man himself.
His repertoire is wide as the Grand Canyon; on this particular night it, ranged from the Benny Goodman classic "Stompin at the Savoy" to an interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "Can't Help It," to the Rev. James Cleveland's "God Has Smiled on Me." And over the course of his nine solo albums, he'd included interpretations of Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer's "Days of Wine and Roses," Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" and the traditional "Amazing Grace."
What was most amazing about Chestnut's performance (aside from his talent) was how seamlessly he made the disparate selections fit together. Sure, each retained its character bop or pop, show tune or gospel number even a few with a studied classical feel. Still, the overall impression was of three hours (I stayed for two sets) of great jazz piano by a modern-day stylist. By now, a jazz trio playing bop or hard bop is something of a cliché. Beyond the personal touches individual players bring to it, it can still sound like something you've heard again and again and yet again. And certainly, there were times when Chestnut's trio recalled certain jazz stereotypes. But for much of the time, Chestnut himself managed to makes us feel like we were hearing something new.
I attribute much of that to the way he programmed the two sets. One piece might begin with a classical-style solo intro, only to give way to furious playing as he moved quickly up and down the entire keyboard. There was a tango rhythm fueling one number, and another that felt like a roadhouse blues, with Chestnut's right hand spread wide, seeming to grab bunches of keys, producing almost rock 'n' roll-style fireworks.
There is a peaceful, almost meditative calm to Chestnut's playing. He has recorded several albums of spiritual music, and made a point of letting the audience know that one song he played was by "Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, not Tommy Dorsey." Even when he's playing an uptempo number at a breakneck pace, there is no feeling of chaos. You never think for a moment that Chestnut is going to lose it; just the opposite, he radiates a calm control, like a Zen monk.
And yet. And yet. My evening with Cyrus Chestnut was totally enjoyable. He is simply a fantastic musician, but his performance underlined something that I've suspected about jazz for a long time. I believe that the fusion movement of the '70s may have been jazz's swan song, at least in terms of innovation. Since then, my sense is that the music hasn't progressed. Certainly talented artists, including Chestnut, have come on the scene. But have any of them taken jazz somewhere it hadn't gone before?
I have been listening to a number of the great jazz piano players: Monk, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and an amazing album titled Mingus Plays Piano. It's probably not fair to compare Chestnut to these legends, most of whom did indeed revolutionize music. Clearly he is carrying on the tradition, rather than creating a new one.
Good artists can, when they play, make the moment feel like nothing that has come before it. Certainly Chestnut managed that. And isn't that enough? I think it is. But beyond where Cyrus Chestnut fits in the history or jazz, this big question hangs. Is jazz a music whose time has come and gone? Is it, like the blues, like rockabilly, like ska, like classical music, a museum piece that is now lovingly tended by musicians like Chestnut?
I hope I am wrong. I hope someone will point me to new jazz that is breaking new ground. And even if we must now resign ourselves to musicians looking over their shoulders, that's not the worst thing that can happen. There's nothing comparable to hearing a great jazz artist in a small club, improvising in the moment. Even if they're playing variations on a theme we've heard before, as long as their hearts and souls are in it, I'm thrilled to hear talented artists such as Chestnut or Joshua Redman or Wynton Marsalis produce their version of jazz past.