Cyrus Chestnut Quartet to pay tribute to jazz great Dave Brubeck

By Bill Dean
February 6, 2015

Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut grew up in Baltimore, in a home where the mellifluous sounds of gospel and the music of Thelonious Monk and Jimmy Smith gently competed for his attention.

He began learning piano at age 3, became a church pianist at age 9, and went on to study jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

And that's where he got into the music of Dave Brubeck for the first time.

“He was one of the people that you had to take time to check out,” Chestnut said over the phone from Howard University, where he teaches jazz and piano improvisation.

Still, his interest in Brubeck — whose popular jazz quartet won pop success with the iconic song “Take Five” in 1959 — didn't peak until a friend asked him to do an entire concert of Brubeck's music two years ago.

“So I went back and started listening to Dave's music, and I started connecting in a whole different way,” he said.

And that's when it hit him — Chestnut heard the influence of Duke Ellington in Brubeck's music, which brought the latter's sound full circle back to the music Chestnut had grown up listening to.

“I was like, 'This came up from Ellington,' ” he said. “It's like 'Oh, oh, oh, oh!'

“And so, from there, I immediately connected to the music, and started thinking about, 'Well, let me see, what can I do?' ”

What he came up with was an entire program of Brubeck's music — as interpreted and performed by a child prodigy pianist whose bread and butter was equal-parts gospel and jazz — that Gainesville audiences can hear him perform Saturday at the University Auditorium.

“The object was not to play exact Dave Brubeck, because I think Dave Brubeck is the only person who can really play Dave Brubeck,” Chestnut said. “And I was always trained to think. So if something was done one way, I have to think of another way, another approach,” he said.

Without divulging too much, Chestnut described the performance as “an interpretation of Brubeck with some brilliant musicians.” His quartet Saturday will match the configuration of Brubeck's classic group from the 1950s — piano, saxophone, bass and drums — and perform works including the best-known tunes from the 1959 album “Time Out”: “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and “Take Five,” which became hugely popular for its melody written in 5/4 time by Brubeck saxophonist Paul Desmond, who also played the nimble but velvety smooth saxophone solo .

Saturday's concert also will include such pieces composed by Brubeck as the “Theme from 'Mr. Broadway' ” and his 1955 standard “In Your Own Sweet Way,” Chestnut said.

His first performance of the Brubeck program was a hit, a winning concert that suggested Chestnut — whose career includes stints with trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard, and collaborations with such vocalists as Bette Midler, Anita Baker and Brian McKnight — was on to something.

“So then we did the concert and it went off well,” he said. “And other people said they'd like to hear it.”

Among the latter was Michael Blachly, director of University of Florida Performing Arts, who remembers talking to Chestnut a year ago when the pianist accompanied vocalist Kathleen Battle in a performance at the Phillips Center.

At that point, Chestnut was still in the planning stages of doing that first Brubeck performance in response to his friend's request. Yet Blachly knew it would be something special — and immediately proceeded to booking the rare performance of it that will be heard Saturday night.

“I said, 'What are you excited about that's coming down the road for you?' ” Blachly said. “And he said he was going to be at the Washington, D.C., Jazz Festival last summer doing a whole tribute to Dave Brubeck.

“And I said, 'I think that would be terrific, and we should do that here.' And he said, 'I would love to come back.'

“He's a phenomenal player and he takes this legendary icon and creates a tribute to him,” Blachly said. “That to me is value-added, that becomes where the art extends beyond the keyboard, it extends beyond recordings.

“It becomes an homage to an entire art form.”