Cyrus Chestnut for APA: Giving puckish charm and floridity to jazz-piano roots

Cyrus Chestnut focuses in Sunday's first set. 
His recorded history, building a lot of his music out of the black church, confirms Cyrus Chestnut's solid basis as a pianist worth including in the American Pianists Association's Grand Encounters series.

The APA presented the now-veteran pianist from Baltimore  in two sets Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Over the past 30 years in recordings, I've been impressed by Chestnut's old-soul piano style and his imaginative, personalized extension of that kind of brio and intensity. He gets into quotation and paraphrase, but not excessively, and can come up with filigree that grows naturally out of a tune's basic narrative. Tending to nourishment of the roots never seems far from his mind.

As demonstrated in the first set, too, he enjoys exploiting the whole keyboard, making every register ring out in its characteristic fashion. On "Breezin'," he followed wittily, with aggressive left-hand octaves, upon bassist Herman Burney's bowed solo, linked to vocalizing in unison in the style of Slam Stewart.

And you can always be sure he will rarely understate a melody, whether it's a full chorus of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" as introduction to "In a Sentimental Mood," or that Duke Ellington classic itself, joined at that point by Burney and tasteful drummer Kelton Norris. 

Despite the loyalty to the melody shown immediately, he didn't mind indulging in a little too much filigree. But the spontaneity that led him there never escaped his overall control. He put a seal on that by going back to a couple of phrases from "A Mighty Fortress" at the end. 

The waywardness of our dream life was cleverly mocked in the pianist's initial statement of "Darn That Dream." He jabbed out the theme in minor seconds, reveling in the kind of dissonance that overtakes our minds in those darn dreams. He also puckishly introduced a lengthy quotation, "Pop Goes the Weasel," stopping the bandstand action at the refrain so the audience could sing it. 

I liked the arrangement in the standard "It Could Happen to You," with an inserted riff between choruses that occasionally took on the tone of tolling bells. There was a bass solo that covered all aspects of the song like a blanket, not just decorating the chord changes. And when it came time for the bandleader to occupy the spotlight, Chestnut roasted the opportunity on an open fire. 

Whenever the pianist chose to start a number with an unaccompanied solo introduction out of tempo, you could be sure that when the tune came into view with the trio, he could both give it lots of love and be playful with it, as he did in Lionel Richie's "Hello." As black worship styles demonstrate, a certain amount of testifying doesn't mean you have to be dead serious about it all. Chestnut brought that attitude of joy to the bandstand, with plenty of ways to apply it, in his Jazz Kitchen headlining debut. 


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