The State of the Piano 2009: Cyrus Chestnut and Jessica Williams

C. Michael Bailey By

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The jazz palette is long and wide. Within any given performance format there exist seminal artists as different as saxophonists John Coltrane and Lester Young, trumpeters Miles Davis and Lester Bowie, and pianists Art Tatum and Gene Harris.

When speaking of solo piano performances, two beacons performing today are Cyrus Chestnut and Jessica Williams. Excellent composers and performers, Chestnut and Williams illustrate how polar approaches can lead to the same sublime place.

Cyrus Chestnut


Jazz Legacy Productions


Spirit can be considered the sister release to Cyrus Chestnut's 1997 Christmas release Blessed Quiet: Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols (Atlantic Jazz) and 2000's reinterpretation of Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic Jazz).

Where those recordings dealt directly with seasonal classics, Spirit cultivates religiously related material from several different sources, including the church hymnal, jazz, pop music and original composition. While conservatory trained, at the Peabody Institute in classical music and the Berklee College of Music in jazz, Chestnut's biggest influence may well be the church, where he served as keyboard player before his teens.

Western Christian tradition has provided a mostly inexhaustible inventory of music for any manner of interpretation. On Spirit, Chestnut pays both celestial and temporal homage to traditional African-American gospel with material including "That Old Time Religion," "Wade In The Water," Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," and Simon and Garfunkle's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

While the church certainly informs Chestnut's playing, that playing possesses a greater polish and lacks the earthy organic nature otherwise possible in interpretation (consider the aforementioned Gene Harris). Chestnut spins a reverent sophistication into his performances that emerges as an insistent left-hand figure on "Lean On Me" and a Lisztian-Schubert anxiety beneath "Bridge Over Troubled Water. Chestnut's deep bass notes are well captured here. Spirit proves anything but a predictable treatment of spiritual themes. Chestnut raises praise to an art form.

Visit Cyrus Chestnut on the web.

Jessica Williams

The Art of the Piano

Origin Records


After recording for several labels, Jessica Williams may have found her most empathetic home at Origin Arts. She has produced several fine recordings with the label that include: Songs (with Carolyn Graye)(0A2, 1997); Billy's Theme: A Tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor (Origin, 2006); Songs for a New Century (2008, Origin); and now, in 2009, The Art of the Piano, recorded in solo performance live at The Triple Door, Seattle.

Like Cyrus Chestnut, Williams enjoyed classical training at the Peabody Institute but forewent any additional academics for a stint in drummer Philly Joe Jones' band. Still, Williams' classical experience deeply colors her jazz performance. She opens the disc with a lengthy blues composed for the venue. A capable blues player, Williams infuses the 12-bar format with contrapuntal flourishes and chromatic variances reminiscent of Scriabin by way of Bach. "Triple Door Blues" is one of six original compositions on the disc. Williams' writing is characterized by repeating simple, often ascending figures over which she solos as only she can, illustrating all influences, and no influences, on her playing.

"Love and Hate" is such a piece, where Williams employs a variety of percussive techniques to color her melodies. "Elaine" is an ostensible ballad with harmonics borrowed from Tin Pan Alley and shown through a prism of modernity. Williams plays two standards, Erik Satie's "First Gymnopedie" and John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament." In the former, Williams instills a steady whimsy and in the Coltrane piece, she captures all of the saxophonist's angular presentation of his wall of sound. Jessica Williams has attracted much attention lately and it is about time. She is Bill Evans with density, McCoy Tyner with a soft touch, she is none other than Jessica Williams.

Visit Jessica Williams on the web.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Oh How I Love Jesus; Lift Every Voice and Sing; Blessed Assurance; Wade In The Water; Lean on Me; I Surrender All; Gospel Improv #1; Old Time Religion; Bridge Over Troubled Water; Come Sunday; All By All; All Creatures of Our God and King; Peace; The Lord's Prayer.

Personnel: Cyrus Chestnut: piano.

The Art of the Piano

Tracks: Triple Door Blues; Esperanza; Love and Hate; Elaine; First Gymnopedie; Prophets; Diane; Lonnie's Lament.

Personnel: Jessica Williams: piano.


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