One hardly thinks of age six as the start of a career in anything, but that's when pianist Cyrus Chestnut began his. As was the case with many musicians and singers, the church was his first gig. He played at Mount Calvary Baptist in Baltimore, and within three years, he was studying classical music at the Peabody Institute. Over the years, a variety of training and experiences led him to jazz. He worked alongside some modern jazz heavyweights like Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as vocalists Joe Williams and Betty Carter. Chestnut also has won numerous awards, including the Oscar Peterson and Quincy Jones scholarships, and The Basie Award.
After years as a sideman, Chestnut became a leader, releasing his first album, There's a Brighter Day Comin'
, then The Nutman Speaks
, The Nutman Speaks Again
. Throughout his career, he's blended some straightforward jazz with covers of pop tunes, all in his own unique style. The foundation holds with his Telarc debut, Genuine Chestnut
The album begins with the delightful "The Brown Soldier. In addition to Chestnut's piano, the song highlights Russell Malone's guitar, with nods to Michael Hawkins on bass and Neal Smith on drums. As Chestnut explains, the song is about being a jazz soldier, playing day to day and putting a smile on someone's face with music. Hawkins' bass makes that seem easy as he sets up Malone's guitar solo. The third track, "If, features Malone and Chestnut in a tranquil cover of the popular hit by Bread. With subtle notes by Hawkins and drummer Neal Smith, the song has a traditional jazz feel.
A hint of samba appears in "Ellen's Song, an original ballad. Chestnut honors tradition but delves in originality as well. A stop-time beat introduces "Mason Dixon Line, a high-energy piece that highlights Smith's pacing on the cymbals while Chestnut and Hawkins go for a ride. Percussionist Steve Kroon adds a Latin flavor to the playful "Baby Girl's Strut. Smith gets a bit more freedom on this one as he complements the leader.
The elegant "Eyes on the Prize is the first of three inspirational pieces. While playing as a group, each musician charts his own course on this expression of freedom. And setting up the closer, "Lord, I Give Myself to You, Chestnut and his sidemen deliver a delightful cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin', which features Malone.
When Cyrus Chestnut plays, it's often difficult to tell which genre he's in, which is a good thing. Blending contemporary jazz, traditional jazz and gospel, plus the occasional seasonings of Latin and samba, he gives himself plenty of freedom to explore different emotions, while keeping the music in recognizable form. Add to that his apparent ease on the piano, and you've got a musician who really does know how to put a smile on your face. In listening to Genuine Chestnut, one gets the sense that he's smiling, too.