Jazz: Elvis’s treasure chestnut

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut performs in the Hot Jazz series.

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut (photo credit: JOHN ABBOTT)
Pianist Cyrus Chestnut
(photo credit: JOHN ABBOTT)
One would hardly think of Elvis Presley as a jazz artist.
Yes, he was the undisputed King and, back in the day, just one swivel of Elvis the Pelvis’s hips could push hundreds of young girls to the verge of hysteria. But he was a very different entertainment kettle of fish compared to, say, Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole.
Then again, jazz does feed off bluesy roots, and jazz’s offshoots do take in gospel, and Presley definitely came from that musical-spiritual sphere. Cyrus Chestnut certainly gets that, as exemplified by his 2007 album Cyrus Plays Elvis. The 54-year-old American jazz pianist will be in Israel from March 26 to April 1 to perform six gigs around the country as part of the Hot Jazz series, in the company of mainstays of the local jazz scene bassist Yorai Oron and drummer Eitan Itzcovich.
While Chestnut is too young to have caught the King in his earliest imperious pomp, the pianist does share a common Christian-based bedrock.
“Elvis was a great lover of gospel music, a lot of people don’t know that,” notes Chestnut. “I believe he recorded an album of gospel songs.”
He did indeed. Take, for example, Presley’s 1967 release How Great Thou Art, which features an enticing mix of church material with some rock-oriented seasoning. The title track of the album also found its way onto Cyrus Plays Elvis. Other Chestnut readings of Presley’s work include such hits as “Love Me Tender,” “Hound Dog” and “In the Ghetto.”
“There was common ground [between Chestnut and Presley], and a lot of people were asking why I was doing jazz interpretations of the music of Elvis Presley,” says Chestnut, “but I was able to connect to it.”
The pianist certainly had the right upbringing. His father was a church pianist and still does the odd turn on the ivories, and his mother put in many a stint as a church choir director.
“A lot of my childhood, before I started school, was spent in the church,” he recalls. “These days, you get ear training and learn how to improvise at school. But I learned that inside the church.”
Chestnut got his initial musical education on the fly.
“In the church, someone would start singing a song and they wouldn’t tell you what they were singing. It was up to you to hear where they were to provide the accompaniment for them,” he recounts Sounds like (pardon the pun) a musical baptism of fire, and it was an experience that has stood Chestnut in good stead throughout his career.
While as a lad Chestnut spent a generous amount of time in church, imbibing spiritually uplifting sounds and ambience, he also caught some of the commercial vibes of the day.
“In our house there was gospel music playing.
But there were also 45 RPM records [singles] by people like Little Richard and Sam Cooke, King Curtis and Aretha Franklin and The Temptations, so I had access to that music when I was young,” he says.
But Chestnut was also furthering his education in more serious musical domains.
“I was also studying Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and Mozart. I was exposed to a lot at a young age,” he adds.
The latter endeavor began when Chestnut was just nine years old but still a full three years after he gave his public performance in a church. It was his father who first showed the youngster how to navigate the keyboard in a melodious manner.
Psychologists have noted that children who grow up speaking more than one language subsequently have a capacity to take on even more languages with relative ease. Chestnut developed the same facility with musical idioms.
“For me, growing up with all those kinds of music wasn’t confusing. I just tried to figure out a way to bring them all together. To develop the sound that is me,” he says.
That sound dips into numerous areas of musical expression and leapfrogs genre divides with consummate ease. His close to 20 albums as leader, and other sideman excursions, take in rock and roll, pop and soul-inflected material, as well as his core jazz work.
One pop number that made it into the Chestnut oeuvre was “If,” which was a hit for early 1970s soft rock group Bread. That particular cross-genre adventure was fired by more than just musical appreciation.
“When I was in sixth grade I had a teacher who was getting married, and I had a big crush on her,” Chestnut laughs. “She asked me if I would play that song at her wedding.”
That afforded the young pianist a sort of teacher’s pet status.
“I played the song for her wedding, and she always thought kindly of me because of that,” Chestnut happily recalls, adding that he took that early rendition and ran with it. “I went back to ‘If’ and tried to interpret it for now.”
Having so many stylist strings to his exploratory bow allows Chestnut to navigate his way through all kinds of musical territory.
“All those styles are always hovering,” he says. “One never knows what might surface.”
That surely is a boon for any artist who plies his skills through a fundamentally improvisatory creative sector and for his audiences, too. The King would, no doubt, have approved.
For tickets and more information about the Hot Jazz series: (03) 573-3001 and http://eng.hotjazz.co.il/