Cyrus Chestnut has the Midas touch — whether he’s backing superstars onstage and in the recording studio, doing a tribute to Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz or the King of Rock Elvis Presley, or fronting his own trio.
Everything pianist Cyrus Chestnut plays is music to the ears. He plays with an ear for alluring melodies, twists and turns, soft and lovely variances, and great depth of flavor. A favorite sideman, Chestnut also commands his own legacy of jazz music in original interpretations and original tunes on a wide variety of critically acclaimed and widely purchased recordings, not to mention that famous turn as a piano player with decided Count Basie overtones in Robert Altman’s 1996 crime flick, Kansas City, a former Cannes Film Festival entry.
“I like to construct melodies that tell stories, based on what I’ve seen, what I feel, and what I hear. If I can connect to what I’m playing, then I’ll be able to share it. That’s why you may think that some of what I do seems simple, but when you get into it, it’s not as simple as you think.” — Cyrus Chestnut
Born in Baltimore, Chestnut’s strong, early musical influences of gospel and blues came from his parents’ Mount Calvary Baptist Church (his mother, Flossie was church choir director) and his upbringing. He began playing at the tender age of three, working up to his church debut on piano at six, then an introduction to classical music attending Baltimore’s Peabody Preparatory Institute at nine. By the time he graduated from the prestigious Boston Berklee College of Music, Chestnut had already made waves, earning the Eubie Blake Fellowship, Quincy Jones and Oscar Peterson scholarships, and a Count Basie award.
In short order, Chestnut found himself on tour and in the studio with major icons in and out of jazz: Jon Hendricks, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Terence Blanchard, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Betty Carter Trio, Bette Midler, Kathleen Battle, Freddy Cole, Delfeayo Marsalis, Regina Carter, Jimmy Heath, James Moody, Joe Williams, and Isaac Hayes. Betty Carter influenced Chestnut to do more than just play the music, but to stretch his playing to higher ground.
That kind of unlimited stretch took Chestnut from the shadows to the forefront every time.
In 2009, Chestnut dazzled as vocalist Jackie Ryan’s pianist on her album, “Doozy” — to the point where his instrumental accompaniments would frequently take over the spotlight and become their own secondary compositions apart from the vocals.
But on his own albums as leader, Chestnut is simply in another league. He takes on every recording project with careful thought, an ear toward melodic storytelling, that natural gospel/blues foundation, and an open-minded approach to anything goes jazz.
Japan’s Swing Journal recognized Chestnut’s early 1990s releases “The Nutman Speaks,” “The Nutman Speaks Again,” and “Another Direction” with the Gold Disk award.
Also widely embraced were “Revelation,” “The Dark Before The Dawn,” “Earth Stories,” “Blessed Quietness,” “Cyrus Chestnut” with Anita Baker, James Carter, Joe Lovano, Ron Carter, Billy Higgins, and Lewis Nash, “Charlie Brown Christmas” — made in 2000 to honor cartoonist Schulz’s 50 years of work — with the Manhattan Transfer, Brian McKnight, Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett, Steve Gadd, the Boys Choir of Harlem, and Vanessa Williams, and “Soul Food ” with McBride again, Lewis Nash, James Carter, Stefon Harris, Wycliffe Gordon, and Marcus Printup.
His most recent and 16th album as a leader — the 2010 Journeys, with his working trio (bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Neal Smith) — continues to receive positive press and airplay. Journeys is less a Cyrus Chestnut album than it is a trio effort. All About Jazz’s Larry Taylor wrote in his December 30, 2010 review that the “estimable recording…amply shows off Chestnut’s compositional skills in nine originals.”
Profile first appeared in Examiner on Oct. 31, 2012.