’The Nutman Cometh!'
Cyrus Chestnut (piano) was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. As a boy, he started playing piano at the Calgary Star Baptist Church where he gained invaluable ear training from the experience. Aged nine, Chestnut then enrolled in the prep program at the Peabody Institute. Later, he studied and then graduated from the Berklee School of Music in Boston with a degree in jazz composition and arranging.
But Chestnut didn’t rush into things. Instead he bided his time, choosing just the right moment, the right project to infect with his musical styling. Indeed, it was Chestnut's tenure with vocalist Betty Carter's band that proved to be one of his most challenging musical experiences. He worked with Carter for three years, and appeared on her 1992 release It's Not About the Melody.
Mr. Chestnut then embarked on a solo career with his Atlantic debut Revelation in 1994, which he followed with the sophomore The Dark Before The Dawn. Both albums feature Chestnut in a trio setting which highlights the joyous spirit in his playing. His 1996 solo album Blessed Quietness, a collection of hymns, spirituals and carols highlights the influence of religious music on his playing.
Chestnut also held the piano chair in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra during its 1995 summer and fall tours and its 1997 ‘Swingin' the Blues For Count Basie’ concert, and gave a critically-acclaimed solo recital at Lincoln Center's Stanley Kaplan Penthouse in February 1998. He also appeared with Reginald Veal as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center ‘Duets on the Hudson’ series in April 2000 and has performed and recorded with many of today's leading jazz musicians, People such as Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Terence Blanchard, and amongst others, both Donald Harrison, and Courtney Pine.
Since then, Chestnut seems to have found his musical stride as albums such as his self-titled effort in 1998, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Soul Food have gone on to prove. And the story doesn’t end there, for now he has just released his new CD, the emphatically-titled You Are My Sunshine.
Chatting recently on the phone with Cyrus, I first wondered why he had chosen the piano to fall in love with? "I like to think of the piano as a master instrument, because it can melodic, harmonic and rhythmic.”
Has creating music been inside you for as long as you can recall? ”Well, to put it the way my father puts it best, he said ‘I was put here to play the piano.’ He was saying from around the age of three nobody didn’t have to push me to go up to the piano. I just got up and started playing.”
What are your earliest memories of playing the piano? ”I can remember climbing up on a little table and I had a fascination with the lower end. I would then just like bang on the keys and just get all my energies out, you know. For hours at a time and I was grateful that my mother and father didn’t write me off at the beginning.”
Why such long years in between recordings back prior to you turning 30? ”Well, sometimes you just wanna take a little break and just kind of experience a little life.”
Why did you go with You Are My Sunshine to be your new album title? ”I think the record has a lot of light in it. I think music brings forth a lot of light and so you talk about sunshine, you talk about light and light usually illuminates. So, from them hearing the collection, and the way I would hope people would feel after listening to the record, I think the title is very apropos.”
Take me through your feelings behind these new tracks:
’God Smiled On Me’ - ”That’s a tune that I remember growing up hearing here in the Church. So, my intent was not to try and replicate the same thing. And, so I was just trying to just use my Betty Carter influence of trying to find a different angle.”
’Total Praise’ - ”That song was for me a point of reflection; a point of solitude.”
’Flipper’ - ”Oh, ‘Flipper’ was just fun. I wrote the melody and was just playing the thing and wondering what I could call it. And it just came to me! It was just for fun.”
'Lighthearted Intelligence’ - ”Once again, the music speaks for itself and is about light. I think the song is a lighthearted composition, but it’s not so lighthearted that it doesn’t still employ a certain amount of intelligence.”
Which of the new tracks are you personally most happiest with? ”That’s a hard one, a real hard one, ‘cause there’s always a better way I could have played something, you know. It’s a very good document and a great snap shot for that time period last October.”
Before this one, which of your albums has stood out to be your proudest achievement to date? ”Well, a lot of people talk about the first one, Revelation which people say kind things about. But, every album is very special to me, you know.”
What was it like working with Betty Carter back then? ”Oh, I have a lot of memories. She has taught me how to take a different route to win people over with skill and not gimmicks and tricks.”
Having worked with some big names, I was wondering if any stood out more than others? ”Everybody inspired me in various different ways and hopefully whoever my music comes in contact with will go away a little bit better than when they arrived. So, as I’m inspired I hope to inspire others too.”
What does Cyrus Chestnut do to relax away from the business? ”Fishing,” he replies adamantly. ”I really just starting to get into it.”
What’s the nickname that you carry around?! ”Nutman! My drummer gave me that name about ten years or more ago.”
Describe your music in three words ”Inspiring, joyful and heartfelt.”
If you could work with anyone in the business, who would it be and why? ”This is gonna sound crazy, but I wouldn’t mind doing a series of concert tours with Tony Bennett! A lot of people would think why would I want to, but he has a unique style of singing. I wouldn’t mind sitting down at the piano and accompanying him in a concert.”
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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