Cyrus Chestnut, the jazz pianist who has spent the past two decades blending a range of styles into a unique trademark sound, makes his Telarc debut with the release of Genuine Chestnut. The album is a carefully balanced mix of original material with some well known pop melodies from the past several decades—all driven by Chestnut's eclectic yet unmistakable jazz sensibility.
In addition to his regular backup unit of bassist Michael Hawkins and drummer Neal Smith, Chestnut is joined by guitarist Russell Malone and percussionist Steve Kroon. The synergy between the regular trio lineup and the two guest players was a natural fit, says Chestnut. "When you have that caliber of musicianship in the studio, getting comfortable is not a difficult task," he says. "I encouraged everyone to just be themselves. I brought Russell Malone into the studio to be Russell Malone. I brought Steve Kroon into the studio to be Steve Kroon. Likewise, Neal Smith and Michael Hawkins are there to do what they do best."
The opener, "The Brown Soldier," latches onto a straightforward, midtempo groove and grabs the listener within the first few measures. "It's a piece about being a jazz soldier, and just going from day to day, fighting the battles that need to be fought," says Chestnut. "It's about always moving forward and always putting a smile on someone's face with music."
Part ballad, part bossa, "Ellen's Song" moves back and forth from one genre to the other with a seamless grace. "I love tradition and traditional music, but I don't like to be locked into tradition," says Chestnut. "I believe that the hallmark of this music is innovation. It's about searching for something new, and finding out in the process who you really are."
The final stretch includes three inspirational pieces—"Eyes on the Prize," "Through the Valley" and the traditional hymn, "Lord I Give Myself To You"—that are consistent with Chestnut's longstanding affinity for gospel music.
In addition to his own material, Genuine Chestnut also includes satisfying jazz interpretations of some well known pop numbers of the past half century, including "If," the early '70s soft-rock ballad by Bread. "This song has been with me ever since the sixth grade," Chestnut recalls. "I had to play it for my English teacher's wedding. I've played it in many and various contexts. I actually played it in a Top 40 band when I was just out of school. A lot of time has passed, but then recently I just started thinking about it again."
Also among the covers is Ewan McColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," a chart-topper for vocalist Roberta Flack in 1972 that is performed here with a layer of percussion that redefines the piece for a jazz audience, and "I'm Walkin'," the Fats Domino piano rocker from the late '50s. "I came to 'I'm Walkin'' not necessarily through Fats Domino, but by hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing it a few years later," says Chestnut. "Later on, I did check out the Fats Domino version, which added a whole new dimension to my experience of the song. I really just liked the melody, and I liked the way both versions moved, each in their own way. After a while, the song started to speak to me, so I had to figure out a way to not necessarily reinvent it, but simply to do my own interpretation of it."
I'm really just being myself on this record," says Chestnut, "just being the authentic Cyrus Chestnut."
Whether he's drawing from the diverse musical wells of jazz, gospel or pop, spontaneity is always Chestnut's common denominator. "For me, it's always about the spirit of the moment," he says. "I've never liked having everything so carefully worked out. There has to be that aspect of the unknown, that element of true inspiration, and that willingness to go to the edge. It maybe a successful trip, or you may fall on your face, but you never know until you try."