The first recognisable musical voice to be heard on this CD is Russell Malone’s guitar, playing a Chestnut composition, “The Brown Soldier”, which besides Malone adds Stephen Kroon on percussion to the trio. This is (says Cyrus) the real Chestnut setting. Here Malone is in top form, at ease where I’ve elsewhere heard him rushed. The percussion stays in the background, as the bass/guitar/piano trio unwind an at times fairly bluesy (“My Babe” is quoted) novelty sort of theme, maybe with a little of the King Cole riff tune.
Already in his not all that long solo, following the guitarist and bassist, Chestnut shows an interest in doing more. He does, however, take a bit of time getting into the somewhat Caribbean and slightly repetitive “El Numero Tres” (without Malone). And while his left hand seems at one point to remember Bartok, his right hand’s more Monty Alexander.
“If” brings back Malone as ballad melodist, and for the last half of the just over five minutes of this number all of the musicians interact in some amazing ensemble, playing to a Latin rhythm. The performance concludes with a “who knows where or when?” coda from Chestnut. The piano touch is amazing on an “Ellen’s Song” for trio plus percussion, dedicated to Mrs. Chestnut (Cyrus’s wife) but echoing something like Ellington’s fairly obscure “Dancers in Love”.
“Mason Dixon Line” is yet another Chestnut composition, as everything but “If” has been. It sounds like an Oscar Peterson tune, but the playing becomes more ostensively boppish and the lightning touch and very rapid, tumbling phrasing suggest the far less well known Frank Hewitt. Neal Smith takes a lengthy drum solo, and we stay basically uptempo for “Baby Girl’s Strut”, Cubano Bossa where the earlier precedent seems more Ray Bryant, modulated into the more rapid Chestnut business again, and some trading of fours with respectively the percussionist and the drummer.
Back we come to the lyrical and balladic with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which I suppose Ewan MacColl (a self-identified Scotsman, and pioneer of British folksong revival) wrote for unaccompanied singing voice. The two-man percussion team are gentle, and with the bassist allow the flexibility of line and tempo this song requires and indeed gives to the musician who can exercise a lot of leeway for timing.
“Eyes on the Prize”, opening with an incredibly protracted roll on cymbal, is another ballad. The pianist continues to rely on bass, drums and percussion as he meditates on the circle of the composition’s structure. Here the piano hovers on the edge of being out of tempo, as the other guys keep things going and let him float his music. It’s a sort of tender, brainy boogaloo with a left-hand figure which sometimes recurs, and sometimes doesn’t.
“Through the Valley” is atmospheric, with stardust cymbal effects, and as laid-back a tempo as any that wasn’t a tempo at all. This isn’t overall a noisy record, and with the version of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin”, it’s the returned Malone who gets the forceful things to do, Chestnut following up the guitar solo with some speedy right-hand and single line work on top of Michael Hawkins’s beefy bass. There are some grand gestures on the piano before a little bass solo, but nothing is thumped hard. Hawkins plays a coda of a sort well known to Ray Brown aficionados, but with a different sound.
The closer, “Lord, I Give Myself to You” has some intriguing inner voicings, just a quiet gospel dedication, unaccompanied. Cyrus Chestnut seems to be a gentle individual, if it’s possible to draw such conclusions from his stunning playing on what’s a conservative set more people would buy if things they bought didn’t carry names as big as Peterson’s.