Deep Easy Listening


Call it a taste for opposites, but in taking note of the nearly simultaneous appearances by Jim Hall at the Village Vanguard and Cyrus Chestnut at Jazz Standard, it occurred to me that they might sound wonderful together—the former’s tight asymmetrical phrases and careful timbres coursing through the latter’s buoyant chords and gospel preachments. They play as they look: Hall is lean and deliberative, Chestnut rotund and effusive. Heard on their own, they underscored the breadth of contemporary mainstream jazz. They’re both reliable club draws, with hard-earned yet largely undeserved reputations for middle-of-the-road easy listening. What I mean is, yes, they are readily enjoyed, but you do have to pay attention, and though that’s true of any music worth your while, Hall and Chestnut—separated in age by more than 30 years—violate many of the very conventions they appear to embody.

Of the two, Hall is the more radical. Long associated with players and composers on the edge (Chico Hamilton Quintet, Jimmy Guiffre Three, Sonny Rollins Quartet, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, Ornette Coleman, Paul Desmond, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby; duets with Bill Evans, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, and others), he is now less well-known as the writer of pliant melodies like “Romain” than of idiosyncratic third-stream conceptions in which each member of the ensemble is accessed as a distinct voice, occasionally reflecting a guileless sense of comedy (for one charming example, “Circus Dance” on the inspired Textures) that is otherwise more apparent in his stage patter than his solos. Yet it’s Hall’s soloing that most persistently defies the orthodoxies of jazz improvisation.

In escaping the guitar player’s rut of playing all the notes all the time, Hall established texture, timbre, and voicing as the equals of linear phrasing. Coolly modifying his sound (he turns up a new timbre or two every time I see him), he plays short sovereign phrases that sustain interest largely for the way they sound; his solos unfold statically, like tableaux, favoring the present over the future. Most jazz solos are assembled out of eight-bar phrases that imply their resolutions the moment they are launched. Hall doesn’t do that; he plays as though he doesn’t know how his aural sculptures will look until they’re done. In short, he plays the changes; the changes never play him. The same can be said of his relationship to the guitar and electricity. Though he continues to switch between acoustic and electric instruments, no guitarist sounds more electric. Electricity is never merely a means of amplification for him. It has its own glowing aura, an exacting integrity, which he manipulates for a broad range of shades and colors. I can think of no musician who makes me more conscious of atomic particles and the humming alternate world obtained through a wall socket.

To this, add two other virtues. As was striking opening night, his swing is diabolical. No matter how few notes he plays—a phrase may be no more than a wave of chords bleeding into each other, or one sustained tone that the bassist fleshes out—they intensify the rhythm. He avoids clichés as if they simply aren’t in his vocabulary. At the Vanguard, accompanied by the warm-toned, pitch-accurate bassist Steve Lespina and the unerringly empathic drummer Lewis Nash, Hall played two original blues and two routine standards, none dampened by familiarity or requited expectations. “All the Things You Are” and “My Funny Valentine” morphed as harmonic and melodic abstractions, riveted by the constancy of the beat. Yet the highlights of the set were Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” in which he followed a decorous bass solo with a shimmering chorus of phrases so disparate you had to accept on trust that they’d add up to something, and Joe Lovano’s “A Message From Blackwell,” from Grand Slam, during which Nash switched to mallets and the two evolved a duet, Hall hand drumming the guitar strings.

Cyrus Chestnut’s subversiveness is more obvious and less startling. As he wryly notes in a liner squib for his forthcoming You Are My Sunshine (street date, July 8), he is often told what his influences are, but resists making “repertory driven” albums. If you hear his music as jazz, gospel, soul, or classical, it’s all the same to him as long as you like it. It’s an old story, this business of crossing the great divide of church and state. It wasn’t that long ago that Ray Charles was pilloried for taking gospel techniques into the outside world, substituting “baby” for “Jesus”; and more recently, David Murray has recalled having to sneak around in order to play the devil’s music in the 1970s. Yet Louis Armstrong, to his sister’s chagrin, had hits with spirituals in the 1930s, and many church-bred soul groups and singers mixed the two, from the Golden Gate Quartet and the Charioteers to Aretha Franklin and Al Green.

Still, it’s a novel experience to hear a contemporary jazz trio blithely turn from jazz to gospel as if the barriers never existed, which is precisely what Chestnut accomplishes with his disarming smile, calming élan, and roly-poly authority. When he wants to bop, he bops. When he wants to play hymns, he goes straight to the Trinity Hymnal. In this aesthetic, Stevie Wonder and Thomas A. Dorsey are not only brothers under the skin, but de facto collaborators. And when he wants to play classical, he feels no need to rig the time to suit swing purists—he just goes for it, an extended two-part invention, while bassist and drummer look on. On the new CD, Chestnut plays a triple-meter soul-jazz-gospel original called “Hope Song,” which is built on four bars from the adagio of Beethoven’s “Pathétique.” The attitude is take it or leave it, and you’d be a fool not to take it. Chestnut exudes Garner-esque satisfaction in having so much music to play—or play with.

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.