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Jazz Review

Chestnut's Trio Swings, Goes With the Flow

May 23, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If music is about communication, about emotional expression, about transformation, then pianist Cyrus Chestnut has to be considered a master on all three counts. On Wednesday night at the Jazz Bakery, he and his trio gave a nearly two-hour demonstration in the art of emotional connection and communication. And, in Wynton Marsalis' classic phrase, "They were swinging" while they were doing it.

The piano trio, of course--in this case with bassist Steve Kirby and drummer Alvester Garnett--is one of the most essential jazz lineups, a kind of improvisational version of classical music's string quartet. The music can be produced in its essential, basic qualities, or it can flow with a broad, colorful expansiveness.

Chestnut's trio did both, often within the same piece, sometimes within the same phrase. His rendering of "Caravan," for example, was filled with mysterious surges of rhythm, sudden bursts of swing and bright, shining melodic fragments. Reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal's classic "Poinciana," it had the feel of a number that could become a trademark item in the Chestnut repertoire.

The heart of the trio's interaction lay in the back and forth between Chestnut and Garnett. With Kirby offering a solid, dependable foundation, drums and piano were able to toss their spontaneous energies back and forth, urging each other with smiles of encouragement, while challenging each other to match or counter a tricky phrase. For the sparse, but spirited audience, it was pure fun, an opportunity to share the flash of the improvisational moment.

Chestnut also offered two unusual solo numbers. The first was his unique interpretation of a Bach piano sonata, the second a touching rendering of the hymn "Jesus Loves Me." In both instances, Chestnut personalized the music without distorting it, pouring it through the filter of his own creativity while respecting the essence of the originals.

By the time the set wound up with a driving trio romp through "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," the music had reached its zenith. And Chestnut and his players, communicating and transforming all over the place, had thoroughly demonstrated the fertile emotional powers of jazz improvisation.

* The Cyrus Chestnut Trio at the Jazz Bakery through Saturday. 3233 Helms Ave. (310) 271-9039. $20 admission tonight and Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; $18 admission tonight and Saturday, 10:15 p.m.

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