“I have been told by many about my influences: jazz, gospel, classical, rhythm and blues, etc… and have been encouraged to make recordings addressing these idioms individually. I have never been interested in making repertory driven or stereotypical recordings – it has been my choice to a take a different route.” – Cyrus Chestnut
Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut is an innovator. His music is melting pot of all his musical influences, from his childhood playing in the Baptist church in his native Baltimore to playing for Betty Carter, Carla Cook, and Wynton Marsalis. I have been following his music since the mid 90’s when I purchased his Revelation album on an afternoon of random music shopping. Over the years, he has grown and matured musically but there is always a constant theme in his music. You know when he sits down at his piano, he is going to take you on an adventure like never before and you know there will be at least one or two hymns or spirituals included on every album.
On his debut release for Warner Brothers Jazz, You Are My Sunshine, Cyrus raises the bar through the roof. He has taken songs that we have come to know, shaken them up, and given them new life and in between, he slips in his own bold compositions that make you stop and take notice.
He opens with the gospel hymn “God Has Smiled On Me.” He starts into it in the traditional manner and then spices it up with a soulful groove. The groove gets a little funkier and swingin’ on Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.” “For The Saints” is aptly titled for this bluesy/gospel composition evokes visions of Sunday morning with church hats and big fans. He rolls his notes with extra care and makes you wanna wave your hand or pat your foot. I am sure Thomas A. Dorsey would have enjoyed Cyrus’ reading of “Precious Lord” for he too was an innovator and loved the blues and jazz. For this take, Cyrus gives it a jazzy touch and it also features Michael Hawkins on bass and some nice brushwork on the drums from Neal Smith. The title track “You Are My Sunshine” is like no version you have ever experienced. He gives it a down home New Orleans swinging feel complete with a tambourine. His composition “Erroling” is a tribute to Erroll Garner. In his playing, I can hear a loosely woven rendition of “He Will Remember Me” and the organ of Jimmy Smith as Cyrus strides over the keys. Smallwood’s “Total Praise” is solemn and reverent and features Cyrus on solo piano. He swings hard on his composition “Lighthearted Intelligence” and it features a great drum solo from Neal. “Sweet Hour of Prayer” gets interpreted as a mid-tempo jazz ballad. “Hope Song” is purely jazz filled with hope and love and he swings hard again on “Flipper” which features a call and response between Cyrus on piano and Neal on the drums with Michael keeping time on the bass. After taking us to church often throughout this album, he closes service by giving his own special treatments to “What A Fellowship” and “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior.”
I had the pleasure hearing Cyrus live in concert earlier this year with his current trio of Michael Hawkins on bass and Neal Smith on drums. A few minutes before the concert, Cyrus was out greeting people in the audience and I got a chance to compliment him on the Soul Food album and his work with Carla Cook. He is soft spoken and his mannerisms remind you of an old soul very in touch with the past and able to use that wisdom for today. His concert was sensational. His set included Oscar Pettiford’s “Blues in the Closet”, “God Has Smiled On Me”, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, “Body and Soul”, “Duke’s Place”, and “I Can’t Help It.” His piano let out a thunderous roar as he intertwined through a variety of tempos. He brings all of his musical gifts together and result is just amazing.
I dedicate this review with love to my jazz mentor, my Dad, who would have been 84 years young today. Enjoy your music.