As is abundantly evident from the sense of spiritual connectedness that informs his playing, Cyrus Chestnut’s introduction to the power of music came through the church. “From early on, I was exposed to what the church is all about and the music that brings its message to life,” says Cyrus, who, at age seven, made his first public performance at Baltimore’s Mt. Calvary Star Baptist Church. “I heard my father playing hymns on the piano and I heard the congregation singing. It’s an integral part of me and the music I play. My whole spirit of joy started right there.”
Acting on his childhood love of music, Chestnut took his artistic enthusiasm to the Peabody Preparatory Institute and the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1985 with a degree in Jazz Composition and Arranging. Cyrus began his professional career working with such artists as Jon Hendricks (1986-88), Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison (1988-90), and Wynton Marsalis (1991).
After a pivotal two-year tenure with jazz legend Betty Carter, during which time he was regularly singled-out for critical raves, Chestnut actively launched his career as a leader with Revelation, his Atlantic debut. Upon its 1994 release, Revelation spent seven weeks at #1 on Gavin’s jazz chart. The album concluded 1994 in similar fashion – locking up the #1 spots on both Gavin and CMJ year-end jazz charts, while also topping the Village Voice’s jazz poll. Accolades have followed Chestnut’s work ever since.
In 1995, Chestnut launched new musical explorations through his recording work with opera singer Kathleen Battle. His contributions to Battle’s “SO MANY STARS” album marked the first time he’d recorded with a classical artist. For Battle and Chestnut, their shared ties to the church gave them a chemistry and commonality that fueled the recording. “One day in the studio she started singing a hymn,” recalled Cyrus. “I knew immediately what she was singing and, for a minute, we were just back in a small Baptist church with wood floors and an upright piano.” At the same time, the experience prompted Chestnut to reexamine his artistic self-image and his goals as a musician. The sessions also revealed Cyrus’ determination to be regarded as more than a jazz pianist, more than a hot young talent, but as a true artist. (As a testament to the bond forged between Chestnut and Battle, and the vitality of their creative teaming, So Many Stars material will be the focus on an extensive 1999 concert tour for the pair.)
With 1995’s The Dark Before The Dawn, Chestnut again delved into the world of jazz trio with the team of bassist Steve Kirby and drummer Clarence Penn. The album found him both thriving within and pushing the boundaries of trio expression – notably on the J.S. Bach-inspired “Baroque Impressions.” “Instead of playing Bach or Beethoven, I’d rather do something of my own that simply interprets an original work – it’s a more personalized statement, like the music of Jelly Roll Morton or Fats Waller,” explained Cyrus at the time. In 1996, came “EARTH STORIES,” an album earned the artist widespread critical raves and prompted the Philadelphia Inquirer to declare, “Chestnut can find more joy in a single note than most pianists do with huge handfuls of harmony.” Later that same year came Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols, a reverently assembled album of traditional numbers deeply instilled with the gospel and blues Chestnut grew up listening to. With compelling and adventurous arrangements, Blessed Quietness… was highlighted by Chestnut’s journey through a wide range of moods and meanings on such tracks as “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace,” along with seasonal touchstones like “Silent Night.”
Even as he shapes his own musical profile, Cyrus has continued to work on a number of outside projects: this year alone he was featured on James Carter’s In Carterian Fashion, which included his rare performance on Hammond organ, and Great Expectations: The Score Music by Patrick Doyle,” from the two-time Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated composer. As part of another movie project, Cyrus contributes a track to the soundtrack for the forthcoming feature film, The Scalper. In 1997, he recorded with Joe Lavano as part of a cast of contributors on Kevin Mahogany’s Another Time, Another Place album, in addition to appearing on the soundtrack to director Robert Altman’s 1996 feature film Kansas City (which also found Cyrus making his big screen debut portraying a Count Basie-inspired pianist). Among the many artists Chestnut has also recorded with are: Madeleine Peyroux, Gerald Albright, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Courtney Pine, Roy Hargrove, Twinkie Clark, Tramaine Hawkins, Kevin Mahogany, and Christain McBride. With Cyrus’s ever-growing reputation as a player and composer, along with his charm and ceaseless energy enthusiasm, his calendar is always filled with commitments.
In addition to his ongoing trio concerts, always an SRO draw at such venues as New York City’s Iridium, Cyrus spent much of 1998 bringing his beloved solo piano performances to audiences across North America. He also continues to appear with many of the country’s top symphonies – including the Buffalo, St. Louis, and Pacific symphony orchestras – in performing unique arrangements of spirituals, standards, and classical pieces. During the summer he joined The New York Philharmonic for a special Central Park performance, held as part of the Phil’s Summer Concert Series. In December, Cyrus will perform with the acclaimed Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “I don’t take this gift of music lightly, man,” says Chestnut. “I take it very seriously. I want to be able to do something with this gift that can uplift the human experience. The more people I can reach, the more I feel my job is getting done.”
Later this year, Chestnut will join Wynton Marsails and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, along with an all-star cast, for the much-anticipated PBS salute to Duke Ellington, “Swinging With The Duke.” “I refuse to set limits,” Cyrus adds. “If I say to myself, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ then I’m robbing myself. I hope one day to headline at Carnegie Hall and even Madison Square Garden or, hey, why not Yankee Stadium! This may sound crazy but I gotta believe in that and push for it.”