Cyrus Chesnut: Expounding on Elvis

R.J. DeLuke By

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Whatever music you play, I believe it's got to dance. Whether it's a waltz, swing, groove or whatever.
Cyrus Chestnut When the bespectacled man with the boyish round face sits down at the grand piano to play these days, listeners can still expect to hear the rich tone, jazz inflected with not only the influences of Fats Waller or McCoy Tyner, but also with a soulful element that comes from church roots. But some of the tunes that float through the room may harken back to another part of the listener's past. The music is jazz, but the familiar memories are coming from rock n' roll radio.

That would be Elvis.

Not the Elvis (Costello) who has flirted with jazz melodies and married one of the foremost jazz chanteuses.

Back even further. THE Elvis. The King. From Memphis.

Cyrus Chestnut is playing Elvis Presley these days in the wake of his latest recording, pointedly named Cyrus Plays Elvis, released last October on Koch records. It's primarily piano trio music, with Dezron L. Douglas on bass and Neal Smith on drums, though Mark Gross plays sax on two numbers.

It might seem a long way from his apprenticeships with Jon Hendricks and Betty Carter, and his work with Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Scott, Kevin Mahogany, James Carter and many others. But it's not unusual for jazz musicians to interpret music from other genres, and here Chestnut has laid out versions of well-known songs like "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "Can't Help Falling in Love," "Love Me Tender" and more. But Chestnut doesn't reproduce what's already been done. And that's a good thing. Presley fans already consider those classic works. (Although they don't seem to mind when people dress exactly like him and sing the songs, note for note, including attempts to replicate—for better or worse—voice inflection and facial expression).

"It was work," he says succinctly. "The thing about all the stuff Elvis did is it's so well loved. He is so well loved. If somebody's going to come in and do an interpretation of it, especially if you're going to bring it into the jazz world, the project couldn't be so space age—throwing in the kitchen sink, so to speak—putting in everything and trying to be just so hip that nobody actually really recognized what it was. On the flip side, it couldn't be just a basic cover, because it would just be corny and that wouldn't work either. So I had to find a happy medium."

"Hound Dog" kicks off the album in buoyant, swinging fashion, showing Chestnut's ease with bebop flavorings. It's a nice ride. Everything one would expect from a jazz trio: improvisational and spirited. "Love Me Tender" has a waltz feel, and Chestnut gets to express his gospel influences on "In The Ghetto" and certainly "How Great Thou Art," a solo piece.

Chestnut, 45, remembers seeing Elvis on television and knew some of the music. But it wasn't really part of his upbringing in his native Baltimore. Raised in a strong church-influenced household, the first music he heard in his home was gospel. But he did his research.

The idea came to him at a recording session where he was doing a version of "Love Me Tender" with a singer a couple years ago. "In those moments of recording, it dawned on me. Has there ever been anyone who's done a [jazz] record of music that Elvis Presley has done? The idea was so strong that I went out and got a collection of Elvis Presley music. I started researching him on the Internet, got his biographical material. I even got a song lyric book to really look at the lyrics and start listening to the music and checking it out," says the pianist.

Chestnut worked on the material for much of 2006, experimenting with ideas, changing things here and there, trying out different things in front of audiences.

Cyrus Chestnut

"Some things worked and some things didn't work. For me, music always evolves. Even though it's recorded one way, by the time you continuously play it, it's going to keep growing. That's what's supposed to happen. So we just kept working at it and—boom—there you go. We go a record entitled Cyrus Plays Elvis. It goes in interesting directions. It was honest."

He adds, "Some people say, â"ËœOh, he's trying to do Elvis just to get over,' you know? But it was an honest thought. I think that music that comes from the heart and soul will fare better than any brain trust."

The project was fun for Chestnut, who admits that in performance, the music is still growing. "It feels good. A lot of people have been asking about it. They want to hear it up close and personal."

Chestnut took on some other memorable music a few years back when he cut A Charlie Brown Christmas (2000, Atlantic), the well-loved music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the CBS special that aired in 1965 and is repeated annually. That show, and the ensuing record of original piano trio music by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Fantasy, 1969), brought jazz to people who otherwise might not hear or buy it. That project, Chestnut admits, was not his idea. It came from Atlantic. But it struck a chord with Chestnut, because it was among the first sounds of jazz that he had heard as a young boy.

"I love Charlie Brown. That was really my first introduction to jazz. Because at the age of six or seven, watching the Charlie Brown cartoon, I was listening to the music of Vince Guaraldi. And I always enjoyed the music. I really did."

The piano trio, a format in which he frequently works, is also appealing to Chestnut. "For myself, I love it. It puts me up on the front seat and it challenges me. A lot of times people, I think, will think that the piano trio is just a little country club thing for background music. The Oscar Peterson trio wasn't a trio in the background. Ahmad Jamal's trio is not a trio in the background. Definitely McCoy Tyner's trio and Herbie Hancock's trio, the Bill Evans trio — they were not trios to be in the background. If you were to run with a quartet, quintet, sextet, octet, or whatever, a lot of times the pianist goes into the role of accompaniment until it's his time to solo. But in a trio, you have the opportunity to design everything."

It's a job he handles extremely well. He captures styles and moods and expresses things with a rich sound. "When I sit down to play, it's my effort just to share myself," he says. "So all influences, I want them to work together at any time."

He started tinkering around at the age of three and, as he says, started digging Guaraldi a few years later. At six, he was playing piano at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Baltimore and at nine, was studying classical music at the Peabody Institute. But jazz was there, as well as other music of the day. So was the church, as it has always been with Cyrus. "Growing up playing in church and being a part of churches is part of who I am."

Listening to the radio was one of his pastimes. "I remember flipping through the radio stations. I was adventurous. I always wanted to know. You could listen to just one station, but I would say, â"ËœWhat else is there on this radio?' I started hearing music that I really liked ... As I got older, I listened to stuff like the Jackson 5, Parliament, The Spinners, The Four Tops. Then I started listening to Thelonious Monk at nine. On and on it goes. I was very fortunate to be exposed to many different types of music."

The nature of inventing things on the piano also was coming to him as a youngster. It came naturally he says. "After I played my Beethoven and Chopin and Mozart, I'd just sit down and play some music. Being in church, there was times when you would just have to play. Sometimes you had to play stuff out of a book. Then you had to turn around and play things, just make stuff up."

His first gig was an eighth grade dance. He didn't play any formal gigs until after high school. "Once I got to high school, I was getting ready to go out for the football team. The band director came up to me and said he wanted me to play in the jazz band. I didn't think twice about it."

Cyrus Chestnut

Like most larger cities, Baltimore had its pool of talent, and it wasn't lost on young Cyrus. "I remember spending time at the Sportsman's Lounge with people like Andy Ennis, Mickey Field, Sir Thomas Hurley, Charles Covington, Ruby Glover. They were great educators. I had two types of education. The education that comes from the Peabody Preparatory and going to Berklee College of Music," he says, adding with a knowing smile, "And I'm still enrolled in the university of the streets."

His influences "go all the way back to Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, coming through Bud Powell, moving up into Wynton Kelly, Red Garland. Of course Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, a lot of different people. Ray Bryant, Junior Mance. And that's just the pianists." That lists includes others too numerous to mention, he notes.

Chestnut went to Boston and to Berklee right after high school graduation. "It was a great experience. I was a little boy out of a small town, so I had to grow up not only musically, but as a human being. There were a lot of opportunities in Boston. I got a chance to learn a lot about music. I got the chance to play. Because of that, by the time I graduated, I was ready to go on to New York and see what I could do. I graduated in '85, and in January of '86, I was working with Jon Hendricks."

Among his classmates at Berklee were drummers Terri Lynne Carrington, Will Calhoun and Billy Kilson, as well as horn players Greg Osby and Delfeayo Marsalis.

In New York City with Hendricks, Chestnut enjoyed and learned from not only the gig, but also the music scene.

"I loved it at the time. I was able to hang out with some of the greats, able to go to a club and see Cedar Walton hanging out. George Coleman. All the cats, they used to just come and hang out. It was great just to go to a club, go and hear the music. Hear them play. Oh man, that was great! I miss those cats."

He did stints with Donald Harrison, Terrence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis. In 1991, he started a job at the school of the great Betty Carter, long known for being a great place—even if a bit scary—for young musicians to learn. Like so many before and after, he too realized the benefits.

"That was like finishing school for me. In retrospect, it was very important for my development," he says. "She always challenged you. She always wanted me to think. Win people over with skill, not with gimmicks and tricks. She'd always say jazz is about finding out who you are. That takes work. I learned a lot from Betty. Not necessarily from what she said—she didn't say much to me. I learned most from just watching her. I was there night after night where she would sit in front of some audiences that she was well known to. Also with audiences who didn't have a clue who she was. And in less than five minutes, she would have them in the palm of her hand. It was amazing."

He adds, "Everybody that I come in contact with, you learn either what to do or what not to do."

In 1993, he signed with Atlantic Records, releasing the critically-acclaimed Revelation. His recording career has been steady, both as a sideman and on his own works like The Dark Before The Dawn, Earth Stories, and Genuine Chestnut.

Chestnut's career has put him in with some of the finest players of the day. His trio is a major focus, but he can be found in various other settings. Last year alone, he did gigs with a Kansas City Blues revue headed by singer Kevin Mahogany and at times sat in the piano chair of the Dizzy Gillespie all-star tribute band, as he did at the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. To each of those setting, he brings an uplifting sound and feel. His music, no matter how intense, seems to have an underlying simple soul. And his ballads are thoughtful and reach out to the listener.

"Billy Higgins sat me down one time and said, â"ËœYou've always got to be able to see the dancer.' Whatever music you play, I believe it's got to dance. Whether it's a waltz, swing, groove or whatever; 5/4, 8/4, 12/10, whatever meter, I believe the music must dance. I believe it must dance."

So Chestnut pushes on. He'll be playing Elvis music in 2008, but also other projects. "I just finished honing in this one show. It's called Sanctified Swing. I just recently presented it at the Kennedy Center. What it is, is jazz goes to church.

Cyrus Chestnut

"It's been an interesting time. The legends who we've loved over the years are slipping away. It's hard to touch hands on them now. It's very sobering. The guard is changing so rapidly. I fight to keep a good outlook for the music, because I believe as long as the voice of freedom lives in the world, there will be jazz. You try to give honest performances and just keep working, keep working, keep working," he says, reflecting on today's music scene, not long after the death of Oscar Peterson.

"At this point in time, I just look forward to moving onward and upward. The legends I see, I can only imagine how they felt when they found out Bird had passed away. But they still had to keep going on. The torch keeps getting passed. The music must move forward. What direction it's moving, I can't tell you. But I know that it's moving."

He adds, "The horizon is very positive and I'm grateful for it. I'm just looking forward to more and more possibilities."

Selected Discography

Cyrus Chestnut, Cyrus Plays Elvis (Koch, 2007)

Cyrus Chestnut, Genuine Chestnut (TelArc, 2006)

Elvis Costello, The Juliet Letters (Rhino, 2006)

James Carter/Cyrus Chestnut/Reginald Veal/Ali Jackson, Gold Sounds (Brown Borthers, 2005)

Cyrus Chestnut, You Are My Sunshine (Warner, 2003)

Carla Cook, Simply Natural (MaxJazz, 2002)

Cyrus Chestnut, Soul Food (Atlantic, 2001)

Cyrus Chestnut, A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic, 2000)

Wynton Marsalis, The Marciac Suite (Columbia, 1999)

James Carter, In Carterian Fashion (Atlantic, 1998)

Cyrus Chestnut (Atlantic, 1998)

Bud Shank, By Request: Bud Shank Meets the Rhythm Section (Milestone, 1997)

Cyrus Chestnut, Blessed Quietness: Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols Gospel (Atlantic, 1996)

Cyrus Chestnut, Earth Stories (Atlantic, 1995)

Cyrus Chestnut, Dark Before the Dawn (Atlantic, 1994)

Cyrus Chestnut, Revelation (Atlantic, 1993)

Betty Carter, It's Not About the Melody (Verve, 1992)

Cyrus Chestnut, Nut (Evidence/Alfa, 1992)

Photo Credits

Photos courtesy of Cyrus Chestnut

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