Cyrus Chestnut Displays Piano Prowess at Prestigious Litchfield Jazz Festival

Aug 6, 2014

"I am a person who likes to operate in the moment. Sometimes it can be a little dangerous, but that's just the way I've been trained."
Cyrus Chestnut

Graced with the robust technique of a premier concert hall pianist, Cyrus Chestnut is totally absorbed in exploring and celebrating the seemingly unlimited sonic potential of his grand instrument, using its keyboard and pedals to generate resonant, thickly-textured, amazingly agile, nuanced orchestral effects. 

Whether he’s zooming through clustered chordal passages with McCoy Tyner-like ferocity, or swooping up and down the keyboard with immaculately articulated arpeggios, or shaking his beloved Steinway grand with his wrist-rattling and rolling tremolos, you know he’s so passionate a believer in the power and the glory of the piano that, with evangelical fervor, he wants to open up and share this wondrous world of sound with all his listeners.    

Celebrating the release of his new CD, Midnight Melodies (Smoke Sessions Records), Chestnut leads his trio at 9:15 pm on Friday, August 8, at the opening night for the 19th annual Litchfield Jazz Festival, which runs August 8 through 10 at the Goshen Fairgrounds in Goshen. The pianist is accompanied by the redoubtable double bassist Dezron Douglas, a globe-trotting Hartford native and alumnus of the Litchfield Jazz Camp, and drummer Neal Smith. 

Cyrus Chestnut at the 2008 Litchfield Jazz Festival.
Credit Steven Sussman / Litchfield Jazz Festival

The 51-year-old pianist, who launched his career as a leader in 1993 with his aptly titled album, Revelation, shares the bill with the sensational, 24-year-old vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant.

Salvant, who’s the real deal, rather than an ersatz concoction of media hype and corporate flackery, opens at 7:45 pm. Her backup band features the extraordinary pianist Aaron Diehl, who’s also the real deal. Diehl was an inspired, soulfully empathetic collaborator on Salvant’s breakthrough disc WomanChild (Mack Avenue Records), which catapulted her to fame. Her supporting trio also includes bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Jamison Ross.

Pre-concert festivities get underway at 5:45 pm with the Friends of the Festival Opening Gala, a party featuring fine foods, French wines, and micro-brewed beer. Proceeds from the soiree support Litchfield Jazz Camp scholarships, which in summers past have amounted up to $100,000 in aid for needy jazz campers.

Litchfield Jazz Festival
Credit Nathan Turner

A festival favorite, Chestnut may dip into selections from his new CD, his first live recording which captures his performance in front of an enthusiastic audience at Manhattan’s Smoke Jazz Club. The CD is part of the club’s robust series of live, in-house recordings.

Chestnut’s trio mates on the disc are bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis. His repertoire ranges from pieces by John Hicks (one of his mentors) to Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s alter ego

Although the bassist and drummer on the recording are different from the Litchfield lineup, its eleven selections provide an excellent preview of Chestnut’s chops and his concept of the jazz piano trio. Running more than 70 minutes, it gives you the feeling of actually being at the Smoke session, sitting upfront near the club’s fine Steinway B as Chestnut digs deep into the keys, painting his evocative portraits with everything from the piano’s bright top range to its plummy depths.

A solid candidate for opening night would be a reprise of the pianist’s pyrotechnical ascension through John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Of his trio’s strategy for conquering Trane’s tricky tracks, Chestnut said, “We just counted that off and let it go. That one keeps you busy.”

Chestnut follows his own freedom path, inspired by the fearless vocalist Betty Carter.

On Milt Jackson’s Bag’s Groove, he plays the blues with the full-bodied piano sound and soulful feeling of Ray Bryant, who also loved creating resilient, celebratory sounds from all 88 black-and-white keys drenched in blues hues of many soulful shadings.

On pieces like Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” and “U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group),” and Hicks’s “Naima’s Love Song” (a 14-minute spiritual journey), Chestnut follows his own freedom path, one inspired, he admits, by his onetime boss, the fearless, perpetually chance-taking vocalist Betty Carter.

Before he began constructing his version of “Chelsea Bridge,” Chestnut recalls, he was pondering what sorts of shapes, colors, lines, and melodies he should use, even how to step off with something fresh. Then he plunged forward, remembering Carter’s liberating words. “Baby Doll,” Carter once advised a then-young Chestnut many years ago, “you got to take a chance. You never know what’s going to happen unless you take a chance.”

“I always like to create an atmosphere,” Chestnut said of his personal extension of the Carter Doctrine, “and I am a person who likes to operate in the moment. Sometimes it can be a little dangerous, but that’s just the way I’ve been trained.” He cited his off-the-beaten-path interpretation of Hicks’ “Naima’s Love Song” that opens with a beautiful, quite surprising a cappella piano introduction.

“The feeling is in the moment,” Chestnut said of his spontaneous strategy. “Some folks may not care for that. They want to have things planned out and down to the letter. That’s cool, but I wasn’t trained that way.”

Beyond opening night, quality and variety continue to abound throughout the weekend. It ranges from jazz/rock guitar hero Mike Stern with his band and saxophonist Kirk Whalum wailing away with his Gospel According to Jazz project, to the hard-swinging, tenor titan Jimmy Greene with his quartet and avant-garde maestro Mario Pavone with his nine-piece Accordion Project celebrating his new CD, Street Songs (Playscape Recordings).

Brussels Jazz Orchestra
Credit brusselsjazzorchestra.com

In a last-minute coup, festival founder and manager Vita Muir called in the heavy-hitting trombonist Curtis Fuller as a pinch-hitter for The Brussels Jazz Orchestra, which couldn’t make it. Other headliners include: Canadian soprano saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett, master of Afro-Cuban music, leading her all female sextet; Brazilian brassmaster Claudio Roditi and his Brazilian Sextet; English jazz vocalist Anthony Strong; rising young pianist Carmen Staaf and  her sextet performing Standards Re-imagined; and the Litchfield Jazz Festival Orchestra Django Reinhardt Project, which reprises the genius gypsy guitarist’s famous jazz chamber tunes arranged as, in what might well be a first, full-blown orchestral pieces. For tickets and schedule: litchfieldjazzfest.com and (860) 361-6285

King Porter Stomp at Bushnell Park

Stephen "King" Porter.
Credit Hartford Jazz Society

Stephen “King” Porter, a well-known bassist who was born and raised in Hartford and began his musical calling as a child playing gospel music in church,  is the headlining act at 7:30 pm on Monday, August 11, at  the Hartford Jazz Society’s free Monday Night Jazz in Bushnell Park. 

Along his royal path to becoming a professional musician, Porter had such great mentors as alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and bassist Nat Reeves.  He has accompanied such well-known musicians as Jimmy Greene, Wayne Escoffery, and Warren Byrd, and played at the celebrated Blue Note jazz club with his mentor McLean, the founder of the jazz studies program at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School. It was McLean, a discoverer and nurturer of young talent, who crowned Porter with the regal sobriquet, “King.”

Pallas Opens for the King

Before the “King,” with the support of his cohorts, reigns in the downtown Hartford Park, trombonist Michael Pallas and his quintet herald the opening of the festivities at 6:00 pm.

A much in-demand performer in Central Connecticut, Pallas moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Hartford to study at The Hartt School with master trombonist and former Jazz Messenger, Steve Davis. Locally, jazz fans know him best for his work with the noted percussionist/bandleader Ed Fast and Conga Bop.

Keeping the capital city's jazz flame burning further into the night, trumpeter Haneef Nelson performs at 8:00 pm on Monday, August 11, in the Jazz Mondays series at Black-eyed Sally’s at 350 Asylum Street. Information: (860) 278-7427.

Homage to Les Paul

Bucky Pizzarelli
Credit Allmusic.com

Bucky Pizzarelli, the revered, 88-year-old master jazz guitar picker, sits in with Les Paul’s Trio, a tribute group, which performs at 8:00 pm on Saturday, August 9, at The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook.

Pizzarelli, the father of the famous crooner/guitarist John Pizzarelli, has been an industrious craftsman for many decades. His savvy, expressive playing at countless recording and jam sessions -- often with such iconic figures as his good friends Les Paul, Stephane Grappelli, or Benny Goodman -- has consistently set the highest standards. Everyone in Les Paul’s Trio shares a close bond with Paul, the late, legendary guitarist, both as musicians and as friends.

Nicki Parrott, the trio’s bassist/singer, for example, worked for ten years as the regular bassist in the guitarist’s famously open Monday night jam sessions at New York’s Iridium jazz club, becoming both a valued side person and an on-stage sidekick and protégé who learned much from the patriarchal jazz sage.

Streams of fans and celebrities made the pilgrimage to The Iridium to pay tribute to Paul at those Monday night love-fest jam sessions. Some were just regular Paul devotees. Others were worshipful superstars, including Paul McCartney, Slash and Jose Feliciano, who gleefully sat-in with the grand guitar master, designer and electronic inventor. The jam sessions were a ritual that the guitar guru maintained with devotion, delight and musicality almost right up until he died at 94 in 2009. 

It was Paul, in a prescient piece of advice, who encouraged Parrott to take-up singing as a second serious artistic pursuit, alongside her already impressive bass playing skills.

The homage at The Kate also features two other Paul friends and collaborators, guitarist Lou Pallo, who was a sideman for 40 years, and pianist John Colianni, who became the Old Master’s pianist of choice in 2008. Remarkably, Colianni was the first pianist in Paul’s group since the 1950s. He was recommended to the guitarist by none other than Pizzarelli, one of many sentimental ties that bind these four simpatico musicians and close friends in their loving, swinging salute to Paul. Tickets: $35.00. Call: (860) 510-0473.

Verve Reverberates at Shoreline Spa

Michelle Walker
Credit michellewalkerjazz.com

The Side Door Jazz Club, Old Lyme’s invigorating shoreline spa, this weekend serves bracing fare by vocalist Michele Walker on Friday, August 8, and trumpeter Eddie Allen on Saturday, August 9, two performers noted for verve and versatility.

Classically trained, sultry-voiced and sometimes compared to Cassandra Wilson and Nina Simone, Walker has performed throughout the United States, toured abroad from Russia to Israel, and opened for such big names as the ultra-silken, smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and the consummate classicist trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Her backup quartet features the splendid drummer Matt Wilson, along with guitarist Ron Affif, Tokyo-born pianist Toru Dodo and bassist Michael O’Brien. Admission: $25.00.

Besides leading his own groups, Allen has recorded and performed for a diverse mix of jazz greats ranging from Charli Persip to Muhal Richard Abrams. Along with the noted pianist James Weidman, Allen’s quartet also features bassist Greg Feingold and drummer Dwayne “Cook” Broadnax. Tickets: $28.50. Both shows start at 8:30 pm. Information: (860) 434-0886.

Beaudoin Trio Jams at 226

Boston-based guitarist Gerry Beaudoin has recorded and toured throughout the United States and Canada and performed and recorded with such luminaries as bluesman Duke Robillard and saxophonist Harry Allen.    

With his son Gerard Beaudoin III on vibes and Brad Hallen on bass, the award winning guitarist performs at 7:00 pm on Saturday, August 9, at 226 Broad Street in Windsor. Tickets: $20.00 at 226jazz.inticketing.com or at the door.

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