Recording of August 1996: Earth Stories

Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Steve Kirby, bass; Alvester Garnett, drums (on "Cooldaddy's Perspective," add: Eddie Allen, trumpet; Steven Carrington, tenor sax; Antonio Hart, alto sax)
Atlantic Jazz 82876-2 (CD only). Yves Beauvais, Cyrus Chestnut, prods.; Joe Ferla, eng. AAD. TT: 48:54

If you're a jazz-piano junkie like me, but for whatever reason have not yet heard Cyrus Chestnut, I have instructions: Buy this album, take it home, cue it up, and hang on. You'll find out in a hurry what the buzz is about.

The first cut is "Decisions, Decisions." The subject is life's constant changes, and the premise is rendered through devices not available to many piano players. The head happens at warp speed, but it's not just that Cyrus is fast; he's also exact. He stops on a dime, rolls thunderous tremolos to mark a transition, and roars off again, each hand spilling separate sets of complex ideas. Cyrus Chestnut makes you laugh out loud in delight at his mastery and wit.

But just when you think you have his talent classified, he slows it down to a smolder for "Grandmama's Blues." This one is so deep in the pocket it sounds as if Chestnut has lived exclusively in those blues progressions for a century. (Yet before he's done, subtle departures individualize his dedication. This is his grandmother's song.)

Earth Stories is Chestnut's third recording for Atlantic in as many years. The first two caused a stir, but this one places him on a very short list of pianists who give promise of becoming the next major jazz voices on their instrument. Some aspects of his talent make you think of Tatum and Peterson: the control over the full keyboard, the touch that can segue from riveting percussives to silken caresses mid-phrase, the sudden sweeps of harmonic color. But Chestnut is so much bluesier and churchier than his antecedents. Even his most liberated architectures let you catch glimpses of those gospel choirs in Baltimore where he got his start.

Chestnut is 33; whether he grows as a composer (his own themes all sound vaguely familiar) or stops insisting on recording his own tunes almost exclusively, his future is limitless. On the rare occasions when he plays standards, such as "East of the Sun," they're exhilarating—like white-water rapids splashing off the rocks of the melody.

There are an infinite number of ways to record a piano trio. For example, on Jacky Terrasson's Reach (see my review in last month's issue), Mark Levinson created a holographic image of three closely grouped instruments in the near distance. Earth Stories was recorded direct-to-two-track analog by Joe Ferla, whose achievement in creating the disc's sensual and cognitive impact is not separable from Chestnut's. Ferla's approach is more visceral than Levinson's, and works beautifully for an album that is, above all, a celebration of pure pianistic extravagance. Ferla immerses us in the textural details and gut-level impact of a particular Hamburg Steinway, slashing Alvester Garnett's cymbals across our nerve endings while he's at it. It may not be "audiophile," but it sure sounds like live jazz. The front row works for me.—Thomas Conrad