Cyrus Chestnut

The piano man has reason to smile.

It's hard to find anyone with a subtler touch on the keys than Maryland-born pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who draws from modern and traditional jazz while also flirting with R&B and gospel. Such eclecticism has found him performing alongside the likes of Vanessa Williams, Wynton Marsalis, and the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars. On his latest project as a bandleader, Chestnut went in a seemingly unlikely direction — the title? Cyrus Plays Elvis (Koch International). Though taking on the Presley canon might seem a bit corny at first, both Chestnut and the King came from a blues and gospel background, and the pianist's aim here is to honor those shared traditions. The disc is not a tribute (despite the cover, which resembles that of Presley's first LP), but Chestnut's personal take on Elvis' more blues-tinged material. As a youngster in his native Baltimore, Chestnut often played precisely that kind of music in church, and he later honed his professional chops at Boston's Berklee College, where he studied jazz composition. He did not, however, leave behind his roots. When he plays a spiritual tune such as "Lord, I Give Myself To Thee," he does so purposefully without overly technical polish. Instead Chestnut seems to reach from deep within his soul, resulting in a dramatic performance that is alone worth the ticket price.

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