Cyrus Chestnut and Afro Blue To Star at Festival’s Finale
by Beth Schucker
Pianist Cyrus Chestnut can boast a solid niche in today’s jazz world. Critics claim that his swinging bluesy swagger and resonant lyricism set him apart. His lush chords and affable gospel keep audiences with him and keep his music in recognizable form.
The New York Daily News once heralded Cyrus as the “rightful kin to Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Erroll Garner.” Chestnut listened hard to the music of those greats of yesteryear. “That’s how I found out who I was and how I should express myself.” According to the New York Times, “Mr. Chestnut appears comfortable with his placement in time. What makes his music fly is a complete security in his style, and that sense of untroubled self-assurance.”
Cyrus was born in Baltimore in 1963, a child prodigy, playing piano in church at age six, and enrolled in Peabody by the age of nine. An award-winning graduate of the Berklee Music College, Chestnut muses that two years on the road with Betty Carter satisfied his graduate school requirements. She urged him to take chances and play things he’d never heard. And such was Chestnut’s year-long tour in the mid-90’s with opera singer, Kathleen Battle, which culminated with their recording of So Many Stars.
Today, Chestnut’s trio meshes jazz, blues and gospel. 2016 has been a busy year, with his “Natural Essence” CD release and summer performances at the Blue Note in NYC, Blues Alley in DC and a month’s tour in Europe. He is also a professor of piano at Howard University in DC.
“I was overwhelmed when Monty called about the Festival — I’ve been a fan of Monty’s since I was a tyke,” says Chestnut, who is also excited about being onstage with Howard University’s premier a cappella jazz ensemble, Afro Blue.
Afro Blue’s style has been likened to that of The Manhattan Transfer and has received critical acclaim for sounding like a “big band.” The ensemble has performed in programs with the National Symphony Orchestra Pops and shared the Kennedy Center stage with Dr. Billy Taylor. Chestnut and Afro Blue hope to do a number together. “We’ll be shooting for good music and good energy. We want to show off skills,” says Chestnut.
Mmh? How does a piano player perform with a vocal ensemble that sings without music? Wait and see. “The ‘how’s’ of the matinee performance are still in the works,” Chestnut admits. For sure there will be a “set list.” Then in his quiet way he says, “But that doesn’t mean we’ll follow it.” That’s jazz!