Cyrus Chestnut Trio + Stefon Harris: Tempe, AZ, May 31, 2013
Tempe Center for the Arts
May 31, 2013
Pianist Cyrus Chestnut has perfected the art of musical surprise, creating dialogues between his own hands as well as with his colleagues. He launched his Tempe, Arizona concert by stating, "We like to play the notes we've never played before." He most assuredly did that for a full two hours, supported by bassist Eric Wheeler and 19-year-old drummer Evan Sherman, soon joined by vibraphonist Stefon Harris.
Chestnut's Art Tatum-esque single-note lines sounded as if three hands were playing. His improvisations often resembled Erroll Garner's style of altering melody and time, accented by complex chord changes. The diverse concert repertoire was fueled from start to finish by Chestnut's elegant invention and swinging buoyancy.
In the concert's opening chart, saxophonist Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite," Chestnut led a joyous excursion into bebop's musical freedom. He made immense use of the keyboard's treble range, punctuating with thundering bass chords. In contrast, his original "Yu's Blues" from the pianist's Journeys (Jazz Legacy, 2010), offered a reflective mood reminiscent of "Willow Weep for Me," with robust accents from Wheeler.
A rendition of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" was refreshed by uncommon harmonies and shifting tempo changes deftly supported by Sherman. Although Chestnut rarely resorted to quoting from other compositions, he injected a bit of the Jeopardy TV game show theme, flashing a sly sideways grin at the audience.
An unusual onstage placement of the piano put Chestnut's back to his colleagues, but that didn't seem to impact the combo's synergism. He signaled shifts in tempo and invited solo spots with a slight turn or nod of his head, reminiscent of Count Basie leading his big band from the piano bench with a raised finger or head-tilt.
Harris joined the trio on vibraphone and marimba, his large-head red mallets flashing in pairs and fours at rocket speeds. His tone was resonantly mellow during duet sections with Chestnut on "It Could Happen to You," the vibraphonist using his right mallet on vibes and left on marimba (his original instrument as a youth). His meditative ballad, "Let's Take a Trip to the Sky," featured dreamy piano moves that Harris accented with swift alternation between his two instruments. Maybe because there was no horn player, his treble scat-sounds were more evident than in the past, sometimes distracting from his remarkable ability.
"Brother with the Mint Green Vine," from Chestnut's Soul Food (Atlantic, 2001), was fueled by piano-vibes/marimba unison segments and vigorous exchanges, Wheeler and Sherman teaming up to punctuate and propel. A mood shift came with singer/songwriter Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," from Chestnut's Spirit (Jazz Legacy, 2009), the pianist creating rippling cascades of notes as Sherman employed Thai sticks for a softer sound.
One of the evening's most memorable charts was the closing title track from Chestnut's Soul Food (Atlantic, 2001). His gospel-funk blend included a playful quote from "Down by the Riverside, " referencing his childhood start, playing at age nine for services at a Baptist church in Baltimore, MD, where his father was organist and his mother was choir director. The concert closed the annual seasonal series presented by LakeshoreMusic.org.