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Cyrus Chestnut On The Spiritual Foundations Of His Art


The great pianist Cyrus Chestnut performs at the Blue LLama in Ann Arbor on Saturday evening. 89.1 Jazz host Michael Jewett spoke with him earlier this week. Ths subjects ranged from life and work during the pandemic; his time as Betty Carter accompanist; and the spiritual foundations of his art.


Michael Jewett [00:00:00] It' 89.1 Jazz! Big news for jazz piano fans! One of the great, great figures on the scene for many years now is in town this weekend playing the Blue Lamba Jazz Club in Ann Arbor on Saturday night, the fantastic Cyrus Chestnut. And it's a thrill to be able to have him on the air here on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. Hello. And I guess we'll say welcome to our area and welcome to our Area Airways. Just fantastic to talk to you, Cyrus Chestnut. How are you doing? 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:00:32] I'm doing well. It's a pleasure to talk to you as well. 

Michael Jewett [00:00:35] Yeah. You know, when we ask people how you doing now, given life during a pandemic, it really takes on what used to be a casual greeting is much, much more complex. So we certainly wish, you know, hope you and yours are certainly doing well. 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:00:54] Well, it's been it's been a very interesting summer. You know, it's been maintaining and grateful, you know, that not only street is it, but we're hanging in. There's been a lot of you know, this pandemic has really put a lot of things in perspective. As I was saying earlier, this summer has been very interesting because I had to, you know. My father my father passed away in the beginning of the summer, you know, and so, you know, so that's like a whole major shift now. It's just basically me and my mom now is trying to figure out things in our music has now become completely different for me. You know, as even with the pandemic, it it I think of some things you just don't take for granted anymore. Right. You know, it was just like, oh, yeah, I'm just going out here to do this gig. But every place in every place was important. But even now it's even more important. I feel very charged and every place I get an opportunity to play, whether it's virtual or, you know, or in person, you have to offer some type of healing bond. You know, we deal with a whole bunch of stress deals, a whole bunch of Szczecin. And I've always said it's my intention to send the person away feeling better than when, you know, he or she they arrive. So that's even more important to me now than even ever before. So I'm looking forward to playing, playing, you know what to do. So I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to just feeling the energy from an audience. You know, I've said before that musicians now are to be great studio musicians because we've had to play in the room and continue playing live. You're looking for that energy, that energy from the audience. Right. So, you know, when you get a chance to to actually experience that is something that you like, you really appreciate. 

Michael Jewett [00:03:14] You know how we've been playing a whole lot and really loving the most recent record from saxophonist and one of your collaborators. You've done a number of records with him, Vincent Haring. Absolutely one of our favorite records of this year, preaching to the choir or something that you recorded with Vincent just this past fall. So this is under pandemic conditions. You're you're you're a recording artist. And even though, you know, the avenues of performing live and everything, aren't there, you're still making statements, you still doing your art, practicing your art, albeit not not with not with patrons, not with the public there. That's a really fantastic record. You and you and Vincent will always sound great together. But this is really, I think, one of the best efforts this year was did you know you had something special when you were recording it? 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:04:06] Well, as far as every police, every time we get a chance to play now, I just think of it as being special. You know, you get down, you don't know. I don't take the most for granted. Right. It's because, you know, you can get so used to just you know, you always have places to play. But, you know, Kobe just kind of turns that that isn't always the case. Right. Right. And, you know, there's moments where you would just be me, myself, and I was just alone in the world, you know, not even playing with anybody else, you know. So, you know, we put the music together, you know, have listened. And I have been long history. And so it was just a good it was just a good feeling at the club. You know, though, virtually, we just got together and we just want to make some music. Right. So, you know, that's 

Michael Jewett [00:05:07] and the magic happens. And the magic. 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:05:09] Yes, yes, yes, yes. 

Michael Jewett [00:05:11] I'm speaking with pianist Cyrus Chestnut. Cyrus Chestnut will be at the Blue Lamar Jazz Club in Ann Arbor Saturday night for one of their dinner and a show events check Blue Llama Club Schlump for complete details, tickets and all that good stuff. Working in a trio format, piano, bass and drums. You know, the the cornerstone of of of this music and everything. And a long, long tradition of a of a touring pianist working with, you know, so-called local rhythm section. Are there things that which is going to be the case this weekend? Are there certain things you do when you're working on engagement like this, not working with your working band, other pieces you like to call, things that you know, things that you know, musicians have in common? Is there something that that maybe we can don't give away every secret? Because there's lot we always want to get a little bit of surprise. But are there things you like to do when you're when you're touring as a pianist and then working with the local rhythm section, things you like to do well 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:06:09] in these in these days? You know, thank goodness for technology. You can sometimes send music out ahead. So, you know, I mean, this is certain things and just like to play. And then, you know, once we once we get once we get there, you know, the music's going. I look forward to meeting music where it is. Right. And so what's going to happen Saturday is going to be designed for Saturday. All right. I have no idea. I have an idea what I would like to do. OK, but, you know, when Sadequee says becomes the way how things are played and what's that's what will happened. You know, it'll be the LP structure and everything, OK? But, you know, they'll be kelpies. There'll be some original music and there'll be some interpretations of standards. And who knows, it could be some spontaneity to where I'm coming from. The coming from the school of Petitcodiac, anything can happen that wasn't it. 

Michael Jewett [00:07:20] Was it your time with her? That was a pretty big, you know, important artistic thing for you, a big boost in your career early on. You're like in that you're in that select group of pianists to have worked with? Well, one of the great, great dynamic vocalists of all time. But that was a big thing in your earlier in your career. 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:07:39] Yeah. Yeah. It was like it was like at least he's going to graduate school, right. You know, graduate you graduate out of college, but then you really go you get on, you get on the street. And that is it. All we see on the job training. So you really, really had a chance to figure out what really worked and what really didn't work, you know, in a lot of great lessons were not necessarily done. Lecture style. You know, I love that they were doing right on the bandstand right in the moment to go. 

Michael Jewett [00:08:12] You know, here at WEMU, we have most radio stations have what they call a core library, which is, you know, a few thousand records that we want at arm's reach. You know, just you know, you can imagine, you know, there's going to be like a David Rick Miles Davis and everything. Now, there's a handful of your albums and there are things that we we love to play. We've been fans of yours basically since day one. And there's some things that we would love to play. But that record the record with Betty Carter, with you on it, that's been in our core library as well, among other things. Well, the other titles in our core library, Cyrus Chestnut titles, you had kind of like, well, I don't want to call it a fluke, but it was really a kind of a surprising departure. You did an album of interpretations of Elvis Presley music and Cyrus plays Elvis. And I remember having I just have fond memories of all these discussions that people have, just like people who were not familiar with you. I'm like, no, yeah. I was just. It's like a gold standard. So this guy is the real deal, you know, and then people so there's like the Elvis people who are coming in, like, who is this? Who is a jazz piano? People who are like, what in the heck is he trying to do? Is that just like one of those records? I mean, because it's been a few years since this has come out and, you know, we still play it occasionally. When you have a record like that that kind of like stands out. Do you have, like, any kind of enduring feeling about that, about that project? 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:09:33] Well, you know, sometimes people, you know, call recorded such gimmicks. Oh, it's just a little gimmick. Just, you know, but this is called an honest in this, you 

Michael Jewett [00:09:46] know, I guess 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:09:48] it was it was something that that I thought of. And I'll tell you a story very quickly. I was in the studio with the vocalists and she decided to do the Do Love Me tender, OK? So and in the moment it was do it. As he recorded, the light bulb went off in my ear. So why didn't anybody ever done any jazz arrangements of of of of Elvis? And so I kind of search and found some things. But then it was like it just became more and more. So I just felt convicted by and I'm quite sure even to this day, he could be a water cooler topic in the world. He's going to cover Elvis. And why not? You know, there's common ground, you know, ground, common ground in the blues. You know, the Elvis love gospel is common ground in the gospel, you know? And so, you know, it was just going in a different well and just finding something different. 

Michael Jewett [00:10:49] That's how church music, you know, sacred music, church gospel music, really at the core of of, I guess, your art, I could say. And it's something that weaves its way through your music. Sometimes it seems very prominent in terms of repertoire or, you know, a whole project that's built around this this, you know, sphere of music or. Is this something that that has really maybe come to the fore of late, you know, to maybe come full circle what we're talking about in terms of, you know, living through a pandemic and whatnot? But you you're one of those musicians that started playing in a very, very young age. And I believe this was in church or through, you know, that experience. So is that that foundation is that something that's maybe come to the fore of late? 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:11:41] Well, the church in the church, the church and everything the church means, so far as I'm concerned, has been with me if they want it, as it doesn't change what I do my best, just to basically just present myself to the audience and not necessarily separating the influences, you know. So at any given time in anything, you can hear a gospel riff or anything. It's just who I am. OK, you know, it's just in my DNA. The church is in my DNA. So. Well, I'm. I think now I have a much more deeper passion and more just to simply be able to play, and so it's it's all there. It's it's it's all there. It's always been there and there will always be there. 

Michael Jewett [00:12:52] Yes, indeed. I have to tell you, this has been a real, real treat to be able to speak with you. Look forward to your performance. Saturday Night Blue Lamba Jazz Club in Ann Arbor. Details again, Blue Lamba Jazz Club in Ann Arbor. Cyrus Chestnut, pianist, composer, educator. Cyrus Chestnut, Saturday Night in Ann Arbor. Again, thank you for your time. We look forward to seeing you on Saturday. 

Cyrus Chesnut [00:13:15] Thank you so much. Look forward to seeing you all there already. 

Michael Jewett is the long-time host of 89.1 Jazz every weekday afternoon. Besides his on-air work; Michael is WEMU’s Operations Manager. Mr. Jewett started working for WEMU in 1983. He’s been on the air longer than any other current WEMU music host.