WHEN YOU tell Cyrus Chestnut on the phone that he was, without question, the smash hit of the 1994 Artpark Jazz Festival he says: "Each place I go, I treat as the first time. I don't plan on getting used to it. I just have to keep working harder, I hope that each time they see me they take away something new."
Later: "I hope they realize that when Cyrus Chestnut sits down at the piano, music will be dealt with."
Cyrus Chestnut sat down at the piano of the Calumet Arts Cafe Thursday night. Music was dealt with.
My, my, was it ever.
And we took away some music that's new -- part of his new disc, in fact, which is called "The Dark Before the Dawn" (a deliciously Jamalian version of "My Funny Valentine," for instance).
The place was full. I suppose we could have squeezed in a few more people under cattle car conditions, but it was, in size anyway, close to the kind of crowd such an exceptional musician deserves (and not bad when you consider that across town, pianist Gene Harris, one of the most accomplished crowd-pleasers in jazz, was holding forth.)
Chestnut is a spectacular jazz piano player, who, among other places learned to be that way from a period of study at that great graduate school for pianists, Betty Carter U. Says Chestnut now: "I'm not going to say it was a piece of cake. In fact, it's a Man or Mouse gig. Betty knows what she wants to hear. She demands excellence. She requires those in her company to do their absolute best."
He learned well.
He is also one of the most delightfully direct and communicative younger players in jazz -- a house-rocker, a Tyneresque ostinato-thunderer and a ruminative poet who turns a Bach Two-Part invention into a waltz and then a sort of fascinating free-form chaconne. It was living proof that, no matter what Vivaldi said in the title of the larger work that contains "The Seasons," there is no conflict between harmony and invention. His little Bach piece, called "Baroque Impressions," is an unpretentious little thing of the sort a musician might come up with while playing with the implications of certain chords.
Chestnut is a short, round, soft-spoken and studious-looking man. And when he sits down at the piano, he wails. He is one of the last men on earth who looks like he'd be one of the keyboard standard-bearers of a jazz generation -- unless, of course, you remember that Meade Lux Lewis, Fats Waller, Pete Johnson and a few dozen other great pianists had Chestnut's figure. (It's the physique of keyboard royalty, lest anyone forget.)
"I'm 32," he said on the phone. "I'm on the tail end of the young lion's thing." He admits with delightful directness and modesty that all he wants to do when he plays is to put "smiles on people's faces." (Somewhere in heaven, Louis Armstrong is nudging Miles Davis, smiling, pointing down at Chestnut and saying, "You gave them art, man, but I won their souls.")
His playing put smiles of delight on people's faces, especially during a gospel march dedicated to a minister named Harry Wright, which was full of ideas, Errol Garner block chords and deceptively complex structure. His tremolos went on forever and the drama of tension and release was formidable. And the groove was a monster. (Drummer Tony Williams once said that his fellow drummer Art Blakey "could groove you to death." Art Blakey, meet Cyrus Chestnut.)
Unfortunately, a bit of unruliness in the crowd seemed to frost him a little bit after the ferocious invention of the first two tunes of the first set. He tried to still the amen corner in the audience with "Baroque Impressions" -- his unaccompanied Bach fantasia -- but despite his audience canniness, it didn't really work.
His playing was wonderful -- "My Funny Valentine," a jaunty and very sly version of "What Is This Thing Called Love," fine originals by himself and bassist Steve Kirby -- but the adrenaline tide of those first two tunes had been stemmed.
No matter. A moderately subdued Cyrus Chestnut is still more of joy to hear than most other players of his or any other jazz generation.
He sat down. Music was dealt with. I, for one, wouldn't dream of asking for anything more.
Cyrus Chestnut Trio
Jazz pianist performs with bassist Steve Kirby and drummer Clarence Penn.
Thursday evening at the Calumet Arts Cafe.