Cyrus Chestnut Trio and Mingus Big Band
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
February 22, 2008
There is a saying to the effect that "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." That is what the Kimmel Center did with two problems that arose on this particular concert evening. First, T.S. Monk cancelled his engagement due to illness. But Cyrus Chestnut was recruited as a substitute and turned out to be a gentle "knight in shining armor," graciously performing a series of Thelonious Monk standards. Then, on the day of the concert, snow and ice blanketed the Philadelphia area, seriously interfering with travel. Yet a good crowd showed up, all the musicians arrived in a timely manner, and a great evening of music ensued.
Pre-Concert Conversation with Sue Mingus
The evening was given a special flare by the presence of Sue Mingus, Charles' widow, who has miraculously organized and sustained, over two decades, several groups, including the Big Band, specifically to honor and propagate Mingus' musical legacy. Ms. Mingus participated in a pre-concert conversation at Kimmel's Merck Education Center, deftly hosted by Mervon Mehta, VP for Programming. A noted author of Tonight At Noon, a book depicting her life with Charles, Sue Mingus told some great stories about the man, his music, and the bands she produces in his name. A larger-than-life figure, Charles Mingus was on this night portrayed by his widow as a deeply human figure, caught from birth between Caucasian and African-American subcultures, a serious player and composer of rich creativity, a man of contradictions who was a serious devotee of Buddhism and Hinduism, yet lived impulsively on the edge, and one who suffered the tragic end of ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease), which left him paralyzed and needing to sing his last compositions into a tape recorder. At the same time, big bands always have uproarious and ironic stories to tell, and Ms. Mingus had us all laughing about the band's weird gig at a remote island on the Russian Arctic coast, a god-forsaken place with ramshackle remains of the barracks where the Soviets had imprisoned and tortured dissidents. Flying with the band were some crazy entrepreneursand an audience of about 200 tourists who had been sold on the idea of a weekend getaway vacation! As any jazz musician can tell you, such are the vicissitudes of life on the roadin this case Russian-style.
Ms. Mingus, who loved Charles deeply after she met him at the Five Spot Cafe in the early 1960s, of course presented an idealized picture of him. No mention was made of his depression, substance abuse, and intractable violence; nor, on the other hand, of his ignorant mistreatment at the hands of racists. (In the early 1970s, this reviewer thrilled to Mingus' performance at a now-defunct club called Grendel's Lair on South Street in Philadelphia, only to learn later how he was manhandled by the Philadelphia police here.) These matters need to be aired, not to demean the person or the era, but so that we can all learn from them. Much of Mingus' music is as passionate and intense as the man himself, and cannot be understood without a glimpse into his own deeply troubled soul. Yet I have no quarrel here with Sue Mingus. Charles was her lover and her hero and, after all, he was one of the finest musicians and composers in the history of jazz. Above all, he needs to be remembered that way. Further, this was not the occasion for deep analysis. As Mr. Mehta suggested, Ms. Mingus herself has quietly and modestly become a legendary figure in modern jazz, and it was an honor for all of us just to be in her presence.
Cyrus Chestnut Trio
The present writer admittedly has his listening lacunae, and one of them is that he had no exposure to the music of Cyrus Chestnut until this evening. That may actually be an advantage to a reviewer, however, for the lack of familiarity gives him a fresh ear. Simply put, Chestnut is "a gas." With his large build and thick, powerful fingers, he took over the piano and did whatever he pleased with it. He ranged all over the keyboard and incorporated whatever motifs and styles occurred to him in the moment. Yet he managed to stick close to his drummer and bassist, and to weave a delightful and virtuosic tapestry of music.
Chestnut was fortunate to have two outstanding musicians assist him at this last-minute gig: Philadelphia-based Byron Landham, on drums, and DC native and up-coming young lion, Ben Williams, on bass. Chestnut also had the inspiration to connect with T.S. Monk fans by doing a set of compositions by the latter's father. As Chestnut himself indicated, he improvised on them in his own style, his own way, which added a certain fascination to the elder Monk's already complex and quirky tendencies. Chestnut used more traditional swing and bebop rhythms to contrast with and highlight periodic segues into Monk's notorious angular syncopations and disruptions of locomotion. In additionand Monk would have appreciated this Chestnut plays the piano like a piano rather than a generic keyboard instrument. He brings out the timbres of the wood and strings and cast iron that a Steinway grand is made of, so that you can really hear itsbeautiful sound. (I checked with the sound engineer during the intermission, and he confirmed that the rich sonorities evoked by Mr. Chestnut were indeed strictly acoustical.)
The trio performed a series of seven well-known Monk tunes. In the up-tempo numbers, like "In Walked Bud, Landham swung competently on drums, emphasizing at times an approach reminiscent of Gene Krupa, though in this particular tune he almost seemed to be "channeling" Art Blakey hard-bop thunder. At other times, he used his more familiar lighter touch, with some echoes of Elvin Jones' polyrhythms along with exquisite brush work on the cymbals. Excellent bass playing was provided throughout the set by the "young lion" Ben Williams, a DC native who has performed both nationally and internationally with suchartists as Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Mulgrew Miller, Ron Blake, Bobby Watson, Wycliffe Gordon, and Delfeayo Marsalis to name a few. It was easy to see why this young man is lighting up the jazz spectrum with his precise, supremely intelligent playing.