So if you were the pianist for your Baltimore church the ripe old age of nine, grew up in a house where Gospel music was heard side by side with Thelonious Monk and Jimmy Smith, there’s a good chance that when you grow up, the music you compose may just be tinged with Gospel! Such is the case with Cyrus Chestnut. Cyrus is the child of McDonald (a retired post office employee and church organist) and Flossie (a city social services worker and church choir director.) McDonald was the son of a church minister, and the official organist for the local church in Baltimore, Maryland, where Chestnut grew up. He started to teach Cyrus to play the piano at three years old and Cyrus hasn’t looked back. At nine he also enrolled in the prep program at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and then it as on to Berklee College of Music in Boston. At Berklee Cyrus earned a degree in jazz composition and arranging. Cyrus says this about his musical compositions….
“I like to construct melodies that tell stories, based on what I’ve seen, what I feel and what I hear,” Chestnut explains. “If I can connect to what I’m playing, then I’ll be able to share it. That’s why you may think that some of what I do seems simple, but when you get into it, it’s not as simple as you think.”
By the time he graduated from Berklee Cyrus had received the Eubie Blake fellowship in 1982, the Oscar Peterson scholarship in 1983, and the Quincy Jones scholarship in 1984. Cyrus also studied the work of the great pianist who have come before him including; Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, and Hank Jones. Never straying too far from his roots Cyrus has also studied the work of gospel artists Clara Ward, Charles Taylor, and Shirley Caesar. His studying has paid off, the New York Daily News once heralded Chestnut as the rightful heir to Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. While Josh Tyrangiel, music critic for Time Magazine, has written: “What makes Chestnut the best jazz pianist of his generation is a willingness to abandon notes and play space.
In his musical journey Cyrus paid his dues working with a variety of artists including on Hendricks, Betty Carter, Terrence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, before striking out on his own at the age of 30 years old. He has released 19 of those after his first major label release on Atlantic Records in 1994 Revelation. Over the last few days I have listened to his most recent release on Smoke Sessions Midnight Memories and throughly enjoying it! Earlier this year, I enjoyed Cyrus’ piano on another Smoke Session release Vincent Herring’s The Uptown Shuffle. Today I also listened a little to Soul Brother Cool, which is also great!!
Last week both Bill Evans(August 16th) and Oscar Peterson (August 15th) celebrated birthdays and on those days I listened to tracks by each from various albums. You know what, I enjoy listening to Cyrus’ playing, as much, as I do those two icons!!
Here’s a video of Cyrus playing at Smoke at the CD release party for Midnight Melodies…..
“If I can send one person home after a performance feeling better than when they arrived, then I’ve done my job, and I sleep good at night.”
Well, Cyrus I’ve never seen you perform live, but I ‘ll tell you I do feel better each and every time I listen to you play! So Thanks and Sleep Tight!!