Tough times make simple music cathartic, and Cyrus Chestnut’s You Are My Sunshine combines tradition with innovation to attractively articulate this 70-minute collection of modern jazz trio music. Chestnut clearly doesn’t expect this record to change your life, but it does successfully brighten our mood.
The record’s opening, “God Smiled On Me,” clearly establishes the comfort of acoustic subtlety within a groove that nicely unites Chestnut with band mates Michael Hawkins on bass and Neal Smith on drums. The pianist brings his gospel leanings to five original compositions and standards such as Dorsey’s “Precious Lord.” “...I borrowed a little Stevie Wonder feeling and added it to the mix to create a wholly different sound,” says Chestnut.
He subsumes his hard bop and post bop past in the gospel and blues immersion of the record’s first original song, “For the Saints.” It takes Chestnut back to soul as we have experienced it in the domains of churches and small jazz clubs (how often one does feel like the other).
The resonant nature of Chestnut’s playing doesn’t give way to rhythm-driven ensemble groove until the 22nd minute, when Hawkins embarks on a lovely solo on bass. This follows with the kind of sterling piano work that defines a great club gig. We revisit the groove stew on “Flipper.” By this point, I was recalling so many nights watching the great Oscar Peterson.
You Are My Sunshine is a well-paced record. Phrases, explorations, solos and ensemble combine in a time that spaces out this music. Chestnut moves us from one idea to the next with seamless expertise. Great players learn how to immerse the listener in a stew of musical flavor on the bandstand, at home and, in Chestnut’s case, at Berklee. The experience is very positive.
“Errolling,” an original dedicated to Erroll Garner, reflects Chestnut’s embrace of the tradition and the new demand for re-examination. Songs of quietude are best left to resonate. This happens in transcendent simplicity with “Total Praise,” one of the highest moments on this record. Jazz lovers often dismiss songs like this, ideas stated in three minutes or less, as “ditties.” Bill Evans turned such dismissal into legend. Chestnut hints at the brilliance of that here.
”Light Hearted Intelligence” pulls us back to Chestnut’s original groove of ensemble dance. His tickling solo work makes way for one of several short drum solos by Neal Smith, a tasteful assembly of accentuated decisions. This may be the only song on the record that is negatively abbreviated, but Chestnut can forever extend it in concert.
You Are My Sunshine is a nice release; it retrospectively values a time when the new seems to pale by comparison to the aged. This record will warm traditional jazz lovers like a good memory. It is refreshing to see this kind of jazz emerge from an artist under 40.
Personnel: Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Michael Hawkins, bass; Neal Smith, drums.
Record Label: Warner Bros.