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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."

About Cyrus Chestnut
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