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Pianist Cyrus Chestnut: The art of surprise

Howard Reich

8:32 AM CDT, May 10, 2013

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What's the difference between gleaming, ultra-polished pianism and its earthier, grittier, more freewheeling counterpart?

The answer was apparent Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where pianist Cyrus Chestnut provided a dramatic contrast to last week's engagement by pianist Benny Green. Though there had been no denying the technical élan, tonal sheen and near-perfection of Green's playing, and though Green dared to present some new originals, Chestnut showed what pervasive spontaneity and deep swing rhythm are all about. Green stands as the superior technician, but Chestnut made spirits soar.

He established the buoyant, irrepressible tenor of his work from the opening phrases of his first set. Taking flight in Tom McIntosh's "The Cup Bearers," Chestnut and his trio offered a looser, freer, more elastic sense of rhythm than many peers could match. The depth of Chestnut's sound and the vigor of his approach to rhythm, with comparably robust playing from bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Neal Smith, set the tone for the music-making yet to come.

Which is not to say that everything Chestnut and friends played exuded a wholly extroverted sensibility. In an original blues, Chestnut said a great deal with simply stated, lustrous, single-note lines in his right hand. The delicacy of this playing was matched by its harmonic complexity, Chestnut making matters still more interesting with lively passages of dialogue between two hands. Yet even here, he conveyed a seemingly casual, colloquial delivery that's more difficult to achieve than one might think.

When it came to Ray Bryant's "Tonk," Chestnut yielded the most jubilant music-making of the set, thanks to his propulsive rhythmic drive, deep-into-the-keys articulation and evocative, blues-based right-hand tremolo chords.

None of which prepared listeners for Chestnut's exquisitely delicate transformation of a Chopin prelude, which itself turned out to be an extended solo introduction to his "Goliath." The man clearly revels in the art of surprise.

Chestnut produced considerable rhythmic momentum and two-fisted virtuosity in John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," though his chordal vocabulary here was a tad too conservative for this music. Or perhaps it's a bit more accurate to say that Chestnut remains, at heart, a jazz traditionalist, drawing upon a back-to-basics, blues- and gospel-tinged vocabulary redolent of the mid-20th century. Within this context, though, he revealed a flair for unexpected arrangements and unusual juxtapositions of musical languages.

In the end, Chestnut reminded listeners of the fundamental values of jazz trio playing, and he did so with a full-blooded sound and utterly unpretentious manner. This set flew by too quickly – always a good sign.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

Cyrus Chestnut Trio
When
: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $25-$50; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com