Simply Cyrus: an interview with jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut

Written by
Jennifer Greenberg
Cyrus Chestnut brings a touch of Elvis to Israel’s Hot Jazz Series this March.
Some call him the second coming to Oscar Peterson, others, the next McCoy Tyner. While American jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut finds these comparisons flattering, he offers his own response: “Only McCoy Tyner can play McCoy Tyner, only Oscar Peterson can play Oscar Peterson, only Art Tatum can tell the story of Art Tatum. I am inspired by these people, but I would never try to be them.”
“As a musician,” Chestnut pauses, “you need to find out who you are. That’s the root of jazz.”
While arguably the best jazz pianist of his generation, much like Peterson, Chestnut’s roots trail back much further than jazz, to gospel.
“I started playing piano at the age of three,” Chestnut shares. “My father was an organist for the local church in Baltimore, where I grew up. One day, I saw him playing the piano, so I got up and tried to do what he did.”
Oddly enough, the jazz pianist’s first gig was on the drums at his middle school dance. Despite fiddling with the flute and a short bout with the saxophone, Chestnut’s first and foremost passion was for the ivories…and spirituality.

© Andrea Canter

From a young age, music and religion were one in the same for Chestnut – a part of his DNA. “Music comes from a higher power," he explains, "whether that power be called Jahova, Yahweh or God.”
Gospel lived on inside the soulful pianist, even upon discovering jazz in a five and dime at the age of nine.
“I was skimming through the records bin when the picture of this guy sitting at the piano struck me. I didn’t know who he was, and I had a hard time pronouncing his name, but I just had to have that album.”
As Chestnut goes on, it becomes clear that the man on the cover in the high priest hat is jazz legend, Thelonius Monk.
“I started listening to ‘Ruby My Dear,’ ‘Straight No Chaser,’ ‘’Round Midnight’…I haven’t been the same since.”
From there, Chestnut listened to Jimmy Smith, Dexter Gordon, and all the greats. “I wanted to completely immerse myself in this music called ‘Jazz’.”
And that he did.
After completing a preparatory program at the Peabody Institute, Chestnut enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was here that he began his complex, yet beautiful, journey with singer, Betty Carter.
His first performance with Carter came with a moral: ‘be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.'
During a master class led by Carter in the auditorium, the audience ushered young Chestnut to the stage to accompany her for a tune.
“I was shaking in my boots, literally. She looked me up and down and said, ‘so you like jazz, eh?’ and told me to play the ballad, ‘Body and Soul’. As I walked over to the piano, she changed the key on me. In that moment, all piano-playing skills had left me to go have a slice of pizza,” Chestnut jokes.
Nonetheless, Chestnut fought through the changes, and while he was sure he had made a permanent fool of himself, Carter congratulated him afterwards with a big hug.
Chestnut promised to make it up to Carter one day, which he more than did; the two toured together for two years and even recorded an album called, “It’s Not About the Melody.”
“Working with [Carter] was a mix of grad school and boot camp," Chestnut chuckles. "Her passing was very sad, but just as there is the Art Blakey School, I am forever grateful to have been a part of the Betty Carter School.”
When asked to describe his sound today, Chestnut replies with a quote by Duke Ellington, “there are only two types of music: good music, and the other kind.” Chestnut likes to play “good music,” whatever that entitles, as long as it moves forward.

© John Abbott

“Music is always about forward motion. You might be into a certain realm at a certain time, but nothing is eternal. The clock never stays the same; while it circles round and round, time still passes. I believe music is meant to mimic this forward motion.”
The jazz pianist enjoys working on multiple projects at once, giving insight into his material choice for the upcoming Hot Jazz Series in Israel, titled “Cyrus Plays Elvis Presley.”
“[Elvis] liked the blues and I like the blues. He liked gospel and I like gospel,” Chestnut says as if his decision to play homage to Elvis was common sense.
Chestnut had his light bulb moment while working with a jazz vocalist who sang a rendition of “Love Me Tender.” He did some research on jazz versions of Elvis songs, which eventually turned into the project coming to Israeli audiences this March.
Chestnut has been to Israel a few times before. As a man of faith, he absolutely loves the Holy Land. “I want to experience it all and let the streets and sites talk to me.”
While the format and rhythm section remain a mystery, Chestnut does share what he wants Israeli audiences to gain from his tour: “My intention is to send people away feeling a little bit better than when they arrived.”
Simple, sincere, soulful. Just like Cyrus Chestnut.
Cyrus Chestnut will play at the Jerusalem Theater on March 27; Zappa Herzliya on March 28; The Einan Auditorium in Modi’in on March 29; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on March 30 and 31; and Abba Hushi House in Haifa on April 1.
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