Deep Easy Listening

Jim Hall and Cyrus Chestnut—Duo in the Making

In the nine years since his debut album, Revelation, Chestnut's basic approach has remained consistent—the diverse repertory, the contrast between outgoing jazz and the solemnity of old hymns, and the omnipresence of his trademark technique, the tremolo, which takes on the character of whatever attitude he's trying to convey and complements his use of modern harmonies. The 1996 Earth Stories is an especially good sampling, perhaps his best to date. But an increased complexity enriches his recent work, bringing the various idioms closer and sometimes fusing them, and that nexus is the defining aspect of his style. At Jazz Standard, his trio opened with a fresh paraphrase of "East of the Sun," the improvisation accented with Tatum-esque flash and robust 1950s chords (he remembers Red Garland), but the overall approach was individualized by the tremolos and glissandi, which impart punctuation, feeling, and dramatic tension. He has a way of playing energetic phrases that change dynamically—as if someone had turned down the volume for, say, two out of six bars.

Wonder's "Can't Help It" was too limited harmonically to hold much interest—sometimes the rhythm in a riff isn't enough. But Chestnut recouped with Dorsey's "Precious Lord," a highlight of the new CD, introduced by a rock-steady vamp. Michael Hawkins's two chugging bass choruses prepared the way for Chestnut, appealingly unaffected as he casually plotted his moves at a fast tempo, never giving way to undo exertion or flash. With Neal Smith marking every beat on a choked cymbal, the trio mined the kind of earthbound groove that always seems easy when pulled off, making you wonder why it isn't pulled off more often. Midway through the set, Chestnut extemporized a Bach-inspired cadenza with blues shadows, a stride interpolation, and climactic tremolos of the sort that once accompanied silent movies—all of it treated more with a deliberation worthy of Hall than the broad comedy usually employed for such eclectic capers. The trio then embarked on a backbeat "Body and Soul" that, despite a fizzled finish, demonstrated yet another way to ride that most traveled of warhorses.

You Are My Sunshine begins with its dimmest number, "God Smiled on Me," a bland tune from a Whoopi Goldberg movie that Chestnut perks up with a few nice touches, but not enough to justify its inclusion, let alone its starting position. Then the CD comes roaring to life with the staccato chords that set up Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me." There's no denying the benefit of a great tune and Chestnut put his thumbprint on this one with an odd time signature (in seven, I think) and comprehensive use of the whole keyboard; when the trio takes up a straight four, he breaks out like a thoroughbred, as if relieved that he no longer has to count beats. An original, "For the Saints," is a bravely slow backbeat gospel meditation, girded with tremolos and blues notes, rocking from side to side and beautifully controlled. "Precious Lord" has a modified second-line beat and disarmingly fresh voicings—it's one of the several arrangements that cast old material in a new light. By contrast, the title tune relies on an all too familiar arrangement, complete with tambourine shaking. At best it's a hearty transition to the darker material that follows.

But first comes "Errolling," a funny ABAB Garner pastiche with an Ellingtonian transition; the solo, strewn with octaves and reminders of the theme—a folklike melody that suggests "I've Been Working on the Railroad"—never flags, and the abrupt finish is just right. Richard Smallwood's "Total Praise" is contemporary gospel, covered first by Destiny's Child and played straight by Chestnut—the way William Walford's 1840s hymn, "Sweet Hour of Prayer," is on Revelation. Walford's tune, however, is now resurrected in a trio arrangement with plush chords and a rhythmic kick, restating it as a jazz piece. For 19th-century gospel authenticity, the peak moments are "What a Fellowship" and especially "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior," a deep-dish blues improvisation with a climactic crescendo. For jazz authenticity, the originals, "Lighthearted Intelligence" and "Flipper" are outright swingers, the latter constructed with a standard bebop lick and a pretty bridge. Chestnut's repertory is every bit as unorthodox as Hall's inventions, and whether or not they ever play together, the fact that they have loyal and attentive audiences says a lot about how nondenominational modern jazz has become.

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