PLAYING TO THE WEE SMALL HOURS: THE CYRUS CHESTNUT TRIO AT BLUES ALLEY

by Jackson Sinnenberg
January 27, 2015

As Cyrus Chestnut looked over the packed house of Washington DC’s Blues Alley, a little smile crossed his face before he confessed “To see all of you here on a Sunday evening…it makes me want to practice some more.” Clearly Mr. Chestnut and his trio, made up of Dezron Douglas on bass and Neil Smith on drums, have been practicing a lot. Expert entertainers and, of course, master musicians, the Cyrus Chestnut trio delivered 90 minutes of jazz that offered everything one could want and more: light banter, sublime playing, hints of deep introspection and, as is the nature of the music, as couple of twists and turns.

The biggest twist, in the case of Sunday night’s show, was the appearance of Kansas City-born crooner/shouter Kevin Mahoganey, who sat in for the latter half of the trio’s [perhaps “quartet’s” would be more apt] set. Mr. Mahogany, with his sizeable range of vocal techniques and performance abilities, turned out to be the perfect partner for a player of equal diversity and skill as Mr. Chestnut. Chestnut’s technique flows as a synthesis of some of the best musicians to lay their hands on the ivory keys: Mehldau, Brubeck, Guaraldi, Gerswhin, Ellington, and, of course, Bill Evans. Evans’s presence was near omnipresent, from the impressionist harmonies, lush chromatic melodies, and understated, sublime solos on Frank Loesser’s “Never Been In Love Before,” to the subtle phrasing on Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Much has been made of Mr. Chestnut’s indebtedness to Mr. Guaraldi, and the great pianist/arranger’s presence could be felt throughout the night. On the aforementioned Lesser piece, Mr. Chestnut employed a Guaraldi-like sense of melodic development, utilizing bright shifts between moments of his soloing to build his melodic and moody ideas.

When Mr. Chestnut last played in DC, he gave a stirring reinterpretation of some of Dave Brubeck’s greatest works and arrangements in his “Brubeck: Reimagined” program at the Sixth & I. Perhaps Mr. Brubeck’s influence carried over to Sunday night. After Mr. Chestnut performed the first three numbers—the Lesser piece, a chromatically stylized version of Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” and a swinging “Bag’s Groove”—he introduced a suite of three works inspired by the group’s recent time in Senegal. Mr. Chestnut was in top, MC form here, riffing on the name of one of the cities they visited (“I looked at the sign for the city and it said ‘San Louis,” and I thought ‘That’s St. Louis, man’”) but also establishing the sincerity of the trip and this musical exercise. Drawing on the expressive orchestration techniques of Ellington & Strayhorn, the trio’s three part work, “Ameese Dances,” “Blues in the Dirt,” and “A Door for the Door of No Return,” certainly attained Mr. Chestnut’s goal of reflecting Senegal and the African spirit. The heavily syncopated, pounding rhythms of “Ameese Dances” revived the connection of jazz to its source in African musical traditions. With music alone, “Blues in the Dirt” conjured every meaning of “dirt” that exists in both the popular music canon and vernacular culture. And “A Door’s” dirge-like rhythm stood as a kind of warning of what fates can await those back across the ocean.

Throughout show, Misters Douglas and Smith showed how the legacy of the Evan’s trio is alive and well in jazz today. This is, in part, due to how readily comparisons can be drawn between Mr. Douglas’s style and the technique of the late Scott LaFaro. Douglas’s bass solos sung, swung, and jumped up-and-down the neck in patterns that are eerily reminiscent of LaFaro’s playing, immortalized at the Village Vanguard in 1961. As for Smith’s soloing: it was a mixed bag. While clearly a finely honed drummer, Smith had trouble during his solo on “Never Been In Love.” While the breathable, stretched harmonies and tempo gave Mr. Chestnut the room he needed to work in, Mr. Smith had more room than he knew what to do with. As he hit the kit, the notes often rang out hollow and flat, an ironic feat for someone using brushes. His solo playing improved much more on the Mahogany led “But I Had To Pay”; the breakneck tempo forced much quicker thinking and prevented his sticks from lingering too long on one note.

Mahogany also shined on “But I Had To Pay,” as it was his first chance to unleash the scat he is so renowned for. At Anita O’Day levels of tempo and phrasing, Mahogany nearly caused the wooden fixtures of Blues Alley to combust with the heat of his scat solo. While Mr. Mahogany’s phrasing was impressive, the real dynamite of the solo was the sax-like phrasing a la Byrd or Coltrane that peppered the latter half of his vocal flight. On the night’s six vocal numbers, Mr. Mahogany displayed a different skill on each number; an intentional move to highlight both his and Chestnut’s diversity of style. He reclaimed “Kansas City” from Little Richard and the Four Lads, injecting a cool, Hartman urbanity to the rocker. On “Route 66” he gave a demonstration of his Jimmy Rushing/Joe Turner shouting. And on “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” he simmered a cool, sublime beauty. He even convinced Mr. Chestnut to trade scats with him on the closing, blues rollick of “Next Time You See Me.” 

Mr. Chestnut described Senegal in his introduction to “African Reflections” stating that the country “was so familiar to me, even though I’ve never been there.” The same can be said for newcomers to Mr. Chestnut’s shows. With Mr. Chestnut’s synthesis of the jazz piano tradition, there’s a little bit of every kind of mainstream jazz in it for the attentive listener. But neither jazz, nor Mr. Chestnut’s trio is limited to those in the know. Come just for the jot of it, and to hear some of the most sublime and expressive live music that one can find today.