Cyrus Chestnut Brings Back Old Time Gospel
Jazz traces its roots back to such unspiritual places as Memphis nightclubs and New Orleans brothels, but some jazz musicians are bringing the sacred sounds of gospel back into the genre. A year ago, bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Hank Jones revisited such spirituals as "Amazing Grace" in moving, straightforward renditions for their Verve album "Steal Away." Now pianist Cyrus Chestnut, one of the brightest of the new generation of musicians, has revisited his own spiritual roots with his album of gospel standards, "Blessed Quietness" (on Atlantic). Chestnut, only 33, has already made a name for himself in jazz circles for his wickedly fast improvisations and humorous showmanship. A former sideman for jazz vocalist Betty Carter, the versatile Chestnut has dabbled this year in classical music, touring with opera diva Kathleen Battle, and old-style big band work on the recent Verve soundtrack for Robert Altman's movie Kansas City.In fact, it was while Chestnut was touring with Battle this fall that he became more involved in the spiritual songs that appear in "Blessed Quietness.""One day in the studio, (Battle) started singing a hymn," Chestnut says. "I immediately knew what she was singing, and for a minute we were just back in a small Baptist church with wood floors and an upright piano."Chestnut actually got his start in such a church, playing piano in Baltimore's Calvary Star Baptist Church when he was seven and becoming the church's organist two years later. The rolling rhythms and yearning, driving force propelling Baptist music has remained in Chestnut's ebullient playing, and come to the fore on "Blessed Quietness."From hymns like "Jesus Loves Me" to old African American spirituals like "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," Chestnut treats the religious music of his upbringing with respect, but infuses it with the swinging syncopation and bluesy melody of jazz.During a recent performance at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn, the pianist delivered a particularly stunning rendition of the standard "Amazing Grace," using sweeping runs and thunderous chords to shatter the song's calm spirit, before restoring it at the end. Even the standard Christmas carols heard during this season, like "Silent Night" or "We Three Kings," seemed more introspective, and less corny, in Chestnut's playing.Chestnut succeeds in part because he is able to use jazz music's array of musical gambits, from dissonant notes to improvisation, which imply confusion and searching, and bring them into a musical form that has always relied more on stylistic traits that suggest certainty. In so doing, he weds the sort of existential searching more commonly associated with jazz to the powerful faith of gospel. Some of the best jazz music among the younger set now comes almost entirely from church-versed musicians, from trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis to pianists Marcus Roberts and Chestnut. One of the natural consequences has been that jazz, a mix of blues, black dance musics and European styles, is taking on not only African American spiritual songs but also a greater sense of spirituality itself.With Chestnut, that impact is obvious, as the pianist adds to his intricate, bluesy style with rumbling notes and a calm, controlled passion that suggest the cadences of Baptist ministers. In so doing, he keeps alive the jazz tradition of such masters as saxophonist John Coltrane, who in 1962 eerily mimicked the Rev. Martin Luther King's distinctive speech patterns on his song memorializing the deaths of four young girls in a Birmingham church in the song "Alabama."The success of "Blessed Quietness" suggests that Chestnut may have a future incorporating the church more into the jazz hall. But the musician isn't making any predictions about the future of his muse."I play what I live, and what I learn," he says. "Therefore, just as I can't say what kinds of experiences I'm going to have, I can't foretell the directions in which my music will go."