Interview with Cyrus Chestnut
Chestnut, son of a churchorganist and the director of a churchchoir, started his musical career at the age of six, playing piano at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in his hometown. By the age of nine, he was studying classical music at the Peabody Institute. In 1985, Chestnut earned a degree in jazz composition and arranging from Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music. While at Berklee, Chestnut was awarded the Eubie Blake Fellowship (1982), the Quincy Jones Scholarship (1983), and the Oscar Peterson Scholarship (1984).
Chestnut toured as pianist for Jon Hendricks, 1986–88; Terrence Blanchard, 1988–90; Donald Harrison, 1988–90; Wynton Marsalis, 1991; and the Betty Carter Trio, 1991-93. His association with Carter significantly affected his outlook and approach to music, confirming his already iconoclastic instincts. Carter advised him to “take chances” and “play things I’ve never heard,” Chestnut said.
In 1993, at the age of 30, Chestnut signed with Atlantic Records, releasing the critically acclaimed Revelation (1993), followed by The Dark Before The Dawn (1994) (the album debuted in the sixth spot on the Billboard Jazz Charts),Earth Stories (1995) and then Cyrus Chestnut (1998). Chestnut has also performed and/or recorded with, Freddy Cole, Bette Midler, Jon Hendricks, Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Scott, Chick Corea, Isaac Hayes, Kevin Mahogany, Dizzy Gillespie, and opera diva Kathleen Battle, most notably on the Sony Classical recording “So Many Stars”. Their shared church roots resulted in such a positive chemistry between Battle and Chestnut that he then joined the soprano on a fall 1996 U.S. Tour. Later that year came Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols (1996), a reverently assembled album of traditional numbers instilled with the gospel and blues Chestnut grew up listening to. In addition to appearing on the soundtrack to director Robert Altman’s 1996 feature film Kansas City, Chestnut also made his big screen debut portraying a Count Basie-inspired pianist.
In 2000, Chestnut signed with manager Bruce Garfield, who convinced him to collaborate with Vanessa L. Williams, Brian McKnight, The Manhattan Transfer and The Boys’ Choir of Harlem on A Charlie Brown Christmas. In 2001, he released Soul Food featuring bassist Christian McBride, drummer Lewis Nash and special guest soloists including James Carter, Stefon Harris, Wycliffe Gordon and Marcus Printup. This album was one of Down Beat′s best records of 2002 and ascended to “Top 10” on the Jazz Charts.
In 2006, Chestnut released his first album, Genuine Chestnut, on TelArc Records. On it he is accompanied by his regular trio of Michael Hawkins, bass and Neal Smith, drums. Additional artists on this session include Russell Malone, guitar and Steven Kroon, percussion. It includes jazz interpretations of some well-known pop numbers of the past half-century, including “If”, the early 1970s soft-rock ballad by Bread. “This song has been with me ever since the sixth grade,” Chestnut recalled, “I had to play it for my English teacher’s wedding. I’ve played it in many and various contexts. I actually played it in a Top 40 band when I was just out of school. A lot of time has passed, but then recently I just started thinking about it again.” Chestnut’s own “Mason Dixon Line” is one of the album’s high points, a joyful bebop number. Chestnut continually tours with his trio, playing live at jazz festivals around the world as well as clubs and concert halls. His leadership and prowess as a soloist has also led him to be a first call for the piano chair in many big bands including the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. Chestnut is currently represented by Addeo Music International (AMI).
(wikipedia, read further at: http://www.cyruschestnut.com)
Mr. Chestnut, you’re professional active in music for almost 4 decades. How has music evolved since you started performing?
I think music has become quite intricate. With the role of the computer in music today, there are more complex rhythms. Melodies and harmonies follow suit as well. It’s much more than II V I
You started to play the piano at age five. Why did you choose this instrument? Your very first professional gig, you played the drums. You also played the alto-sax, trombone, a baritone horn, and you studiedguitar.a little. Which instrument do you like best, beneath your piano?
I enjoyed all the above instruments, however it was and still is the piano that I believe is my voice. I on occasion will pull out the guitar but the piano takes all of my time
I was playing in the church at five. I liked playing music that had a groove. It did not have to be fast always. I just liked to play…
You’ve been working with so many beautiful musicians, among many others Jon Hendricks, Terrence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Wynton Marsalis, Betty Carter, Freddy Cole, Bette Midler, Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Scott, Chick Corea, Isaac Hayes, Kevin Mahogany, Dizzy Gillespie. How do you look back at working with them?
I am grateful to have shared on the bandstand with these great musicians. They not only taught me about music, they taught me about life. I will forever be grateful for their influence
You were inspired by the gospel and jazzmusic you heard in your youth, Baby Cortez, King Curtis and Jimmy Smith and amongst others . The first record you bought was a Thelonious Monk album with his greatest hits. Who are you inspired by nowadays?
I must say that I did not really hear Baby Cortez in my youth however, In these days I am inapired by all types of music. Bach, Mozart, the Clark Sisters(gospel group), Leny Andrade, etc….
You like to play piano trio. What makes playing in a trio so special? Which piano trio in jazzmusic you like best?
Playing in trio gives me full control of the musical experience. I become front man and accompanist all-in one. It is very difficult to nail down one piano trio as I like different ones for different reasons. I like the Oscar Peterson trios in the 60’s for their driving swing. I also like the Ahmad Jamal trio for the spontaneous freedom. I can not leave out Bill Evans, Red Garland, and Wynton Kelly. I am leaving out some. I could take a page listing…..
Last week I interviewed bassist Peter Ind, He stated: “in striving to become cleverer than the next player, many jazzy musicians have lost their following – simply by becoming too clever.” Do you think nowadays jazz- or creative music is too complex?
I think sometimes musicians in an attempt tob e different, they tend to “throw in the kitchen sink”. One should be patient and allow the music to come to them. That way it does not sound forced.
Charlie Parker. This year it’s fifty-eight years ago he has died . Sheila Jordan said to me in an interview: “people don’t talk about him anymore,The younger generation of jazzmusicians say they are inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Parker is a forgotten part of jazzmusic. That’s a pity, because he is an important part of the jazztradition.” Do you regard yourself as a part of this jazztradition?
Anyone who truly plays jazz music seriously is a part of the tradition form Jelly Roll Morton through Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and beyond. It is unfortunate that the younger generation seems to put the founding fathers on the side. More importantly I think it is the duty of the generations before NOT to keep silent and pass the history. It was done for us and we should do it fort hem.
In an interview with Cassandra Henry (2006) you said: “ jazz music was referred to as Jackass music. A lot of times when you talk to certain classical musicians about jazz, they can’t give it any credence because they don’t feel it’s really serious. Jazz musicians are just as serious because we are doing the same things the classical musicians are doing but adding improvisation to the composition at a higher rate of speed. You know there are people in this industry who are just starting to embrace jazz music a little bit more now, but there are still some who say jazz is not interesting. Jazz musicians are constantly fighting to be recognized and taken seriously.” (http://3blackchicks.com/movie-reviews/reviews-archives/51-2004-interviews/372-m-casschestnutinterview). Do you think jazzmusic is the stepchild of American Music?
Unfortunately, I have to agree. There are some who think of jazz as a sub genre when not only does it require virtuosity, It requires spontaneous thought. The true jazz musician is a spontaneous composer.
Later on in an interview with R.J. Deluke for all about jazz you say: “It’s been an interesting time. The legends who we’ve loved over the years are slipping away. It’s hard to touch hands on them now. It’s very sobering. The guard is changing so rapidly. I fight to keep a good outlook for the music, because I believe as long as the voice of freedom lives in the world, there will be jazz. “ (http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=28279&pg=3#.UdhIB6fCSM8) So there is a future for jazzmusic?
ABSOLUTELY!!!!!!! As long as the voice of freedom is alive, there will be jazz!
Your musical activities span a wide range of styles and combinations,. Which projects do you have in store for us?
Each day brings something new. I continously write and I am doing a project on the music of Dave Brubeck. It is an exciting time.