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REVIEW: A Sweet, Sweet Spirit with the Cyrus Chestnut Trio (Vieux Carré)

The Cyrus Chestnut Trio featuring Buster Williams and Lenny White. Photo courtesy of the AMI Agency.

Some consider Cyrus Chestnut the finest jazz pianist of this generation. Without a doubt, he is one of the most entertaining; last evening at Vieux Carré, he arrived boosted by two excellent recent albums (2017’s There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit and Kaleidoscope, released just a few weeks ago) and an all-star trio.

Cyrus Chestnut at the piano. Photo courtesy of the AMI Agency.

As regards the trio, Lenny White is the premier drummer of jazz-rock fusion, going back to his work on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (1970) and Chick Corea’s 1970s jazz-fusion group Return to Forever. White has been recording for 50 years and has three Grammy Awards to his name. A comparably accomplished veteran, bassist Buster Williams has played with seemingly every major name in jazz, including Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Carmen McRae, Dexter Gordon, Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard, and Wynton Marsalis.

Chestnut announced at the beginning of the set that the audience would hear “an original performance, designed for [our] ears only,” and that the music would never be played that same way for anyone else. This, of course, is the essence of jazz: improvised music, invention that leads to more invention, every performance unique. Chestnut continued that it was the trio’s intention “to make [us] feel better when [we] leave than we did when [we] came in.” And that has always been the essence of Chestnut’s music – like the 2017 album title, his has always been “a sweet, sweet spirit. One gets a good sense of the upbeat performer and his music from a 2012 mini-concert solo show on NPR.

Drummer Lenny White. Photo by Brian Bix.

The Nutman (as Chestnut called himself on an early album) has always been known for the range of his music. He has an album of Elvis Presley songs (Cyrus Plays Elvis, 2007) and one only of religious music (Blessed Quietness, 1996), alongside a charming remake of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (2000). His most recent album, Kaleidoscope, travels across classical music, spirituals, and an amazing version of Deep Purple’s rock anthem, “Smoke on the Water.”

Bassist Buster Williams. Photo by Brian Bix.

This evening, the selection was heavy on classical music and jazz standards, including Johann Sebastian Bach’s Minuet in G Major, Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20, Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 – and the American Songbook standards “It Could Happen to You” and “I Hear a Rhapsody”. For every tune, though, Chestnut and his Trio gave the melodies distinctive twists, sometimes more bossa nova, sometimes bebop.

Williams and White took turns as solos, and showed their hard-earned brilliance. Chestnut played with great emotion, his left hand often rising high in the midst of some flourish. His playing varied from delicate single notes to more emphatic pounding of chords, according to what the music and the mood called for.

At the end of the set, Chestnut expressed a hope that the Trio “had put a smile on faces.” The packed audience applauded its agreement.

Brian Bix