Like current media darling Jacky Terrasson, pianist Cyrus Chestnut has spent time in singer Betty Carter’s group, his distinctive trio relies on interaction with a standout drummer–Clarence Penn to Terrasson’s Leon Parker–and he enjoys reworking classic material. But over the course of two superb albums the 33-year-old Chestnut has proven that he has no need for novel stylistic tricks like the ones Terrasson tends toward on his recent Blue Note debut. Chestnut, who recently played behind opera star Kathleen Battle on a collection of spirituals and lullabies, spent his formative years steeped in gospel and spirituals, and this influence informs much of what he plays but doesn’t limit it. Fully understanding jazz’s vast lineage, he draws upon this history without ever attracting attention to the diversity of his travels. His new album The Dark Before the Dawn (Atlantic) includes a solo piece called “Baroque Impressions” that opens with quotes from Bach before seamlessly transforming into a swinging, elegant waltz. And the innate sense of blues he displays on a tune like “Wright’s Rolls and Butter” establishes that he’s at home in all styles. Like his strong writing and arranging, his superlative soloing embraces a holistic approach; in a heartbeat he’s apt to leap from florid and furious extrapolations a la Art Tatum (to whom the pianist bears some physical resemblance) to gutbuckety boogie-woogie. None of the current young lions–Terrasson, Stephen Scott, Geoff Keezer, et al–holds a flame to Chestnut’s depth of vision and originality, all of it, amazingly enough, within a mainstream context. This marks the Chicago debut of his trio. Sunday, 8:30 PM, and Monday, 8:30 and 10:15 PM, FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Antonin Kratochuil.