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Play Me a Story

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Cyrus Chestnut isn’t much interested in blowing people away with technical prowess. Not that he couldn’t. Chestnut has all the credentials one could ask of a piano virtuoso. Chestnut was invited to attend the preparatory division of the Peabody Institute, in his Baltimore hometown, at age 9.

Straight out of high school, Chestnut was accepted at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where his distinguished stint was rewarded with the Eubie Blake Fellowship, the Oscar Peterson Scholarship, the Quincy Jones Scholarship and the Basie Award.

With a degree in jazz composition and arranging, Chestnut quickly found work as a sideman with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Freddy Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie and others before establishing himself as a solo artist.

Through it all, Chestnut has wanted only to tell his story and share the music.

“I think jazz is about telling a story,” said Chestnut. “It would seem pointless to me to be on a stage, connecting only with yourself, not anybody else. You could do that in your own house. As I’ve often said, I want to be able to inspire people, sharing with audiences what I see and feel and hear. I don’t want to be selfish with the music. If I’m having fun on the bandstand, I want everyone else to have fun around me.”

Chestnut should be at the center of some big fun tonight, July 25. Chestnut has been among the jazz masters giving instruction to some top-level students in Snowmass Village this past week, as part of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Academy Summer Sessions. The instructors – bassist and Academy artistic director Christian McBride, saxophonists James Carter and Loren Schoenberg, drummer Grady Tate, trumpeter Terell Stafford, trombonist Steve Davis and vocalist Allan Harris in addition to Chestnut – emerge from the classroom to give a concert as the JAS Academy Allstar Band in the Cabaret Room of Snowmass Village’s Silvertree Hotel at 8 p.m.

The 40-year-old Chestnut isn’t, of course, against technique. But he is a big advocate of the idea that there are more important qualities to music – emotion, spirituality, joy, journey – that can get lost amidst technical flair.

“One who uses techniques and devices simply to showcase what he or she can do – I think they remain just techniques and devices,” said Chestnut one morning last week, battling with the altitude in the lobby of the Silvertree Hotel. “Anything that you learn – any harmonic concept, rhythmic concept – should aid you in sharing your feelings.”

Perhaps most important to Chestnut is the idea of story. “It’s important for any musician, regardless of genre, to have a story to tell,” he said. Not having a story “would be like learning an extensive vocabulary, getting up in front of an audience to speak, and not saying anything.”

To Chestnut, that sense of storytelling is the essence of connecting with an audience. “I think one can really tell a difference between someone sharing their heart and soul, and someone learning a bunch of techniques, saying, `Here’s what I can do,'” he said. “It’s important to be able to share your story. That’s what I aim to do. Hopefully, through the arrangement and original compositions, when one finishes listening, if they need peace, they find peace. If they need encouragement, hopefully they find encouragement. It’s just using skill and intelligence to tell a story. My story.”

On “You Are My Sunshine,” released earlier this month on Warner Bros. Jazz, Chestnut gets down to the core of his story. It is a trio album, with Chestnut’s piano accompanied only by bassist Michael Hawkins and drummer Neal Smith. And even by the standards of the stripped-down trio setting, “You Are My Sunshine” is a lean recording, with Chestnut’s gimmick-free playing predominant from beginning to end.

“I enjoy the trio setting. It puts me in the hot seat,” said Chestnut. “When I say the hot seat, I’m responsible for the whole shape and direction of each song. It allows me to explore, take musical journeys.”

And tell about his own explorations and journeys. “You Are My Sunshine” ably reveals much about its creator.

The classical piano influence evident in the record speaks of Chestnut’s early training first with his father at age 4; then with an instructor, Adah Jenkins, who lived down the block; and finally at the Peabody Preparatory.

“You Are My Sunshine” also reflects Chestnut’s upbringing in the church. It was in the church, the Mount Cavalry Star Baptist Church, where Chestnut began making his name at age 6. “You Are My Sunshine” has the pianist’s church roots all over it: The album opens with “God Has Smiled On Me,” closes with “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” and includes versions of “Total Praise” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” as well as the Chestnut originals “Hope Song” and “For the Saints.”

Church offered Chestnut many musical lessons, including the cornerstone of jazz, improvisation. “Sometimes in church, people would just get up and start singing,” said Chestnut, who splits his home base between New York and Baltimore. “Often you weren’t told what the piece was, or even the key. Your job was just to hear it and accompany them. Later on, when I was training at Peabody and later college, I realized what an advantage I had, being able to just listen to things and find out what they were.”

Perhaps the biggest turn in the Chestnut story came when he was 9 or 10. He visited a record shop and was attracted to the cover of a Thelonious Monk greatest hits album.

“I listened to it and just kept listening to it,” he said. “I started fishing through the radio stations, trying to find more music like that.”

A few years later, when Chestnut was in ninth grade, jazz started making its way into his playing. “The pendulum surely was making its swing,” he said. “I started playing more in the style of Bud Powell and Errol Garner rather than Brahms or Beethoven.

“I liked the fact that you could simply create, that you had the opportunity to explore. I found the freedom; I was able to express myself in ways that words couldn’t.”

Monk was the introduction to jazz for Chestnut, but the guiding light was given by the late vocalist Betty Carter, who died in 1998. After a stint in Wynton Marsalis’ septet in the summer of 1991, and while waiting for Marsalis to make a decision on who would fill the piano chair in his combo, Chestnut came across Carter in a Washington, D.C., club. Carter wanted to know what Chestnut’s plans were. Two days later, Carter called with an invitation.

“Needless to say, I jumped on that opportunity extremely fast,” said Chestnut. “Working with Betty was like a finishing school.

“She always stressed creativity. From the minute she got on the bandstand, you knew you were going on a journey. To fill that chair, it took all of your being, body and soul.”

Chestnut has poured his soul into a series of acclaimed CDs. His 2001 release “Soul Food,” with guest appearances by James Carter, vibrophone player Stefon Harris and trumpeter Marcus Printup, seemed to mark a high point, earning mention in Downbeat magazine as one of the best albums of the year, and placing near the top of the jazz charts. But the pianist seems to have topped himself with “You Are My Sunshine,” an example of elemental Chestnut.

“It’s an effort to dig down lower into the essentials of the music,” he said. “These days I try to make every note count. Every note has to have meaning and purpose.

“`You Are My Sunshine’ is a kind of journey to continue using the jazz/gospel/classical idioms not separately, but as a collective. These are the various things that define who I am.”

Cyrus Chestnut appears with the JAS Academy Allstar Band tonight, Friday, July 25, at 8 p.m. at the Silvertree Hotel’s Cabaret Room in Snowmass Village.

Also performing in the JAS Academy Summer Sessions concert series is the Chuchito Valdes Septet, playing the Cabaret Room tomorrow, Saturday, July 26.


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