Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut channels ... Elvis

Gene Seymour
Newsday (MCT)

Saying the least, jazz and rock haven't had the most harmonious of transactions since the latter took hold of teen imaginations in the 1950s. Chuck Berry's backhanded dismissal about having "no kick against modern jazz/unless they try to play it too darned fast" seems to have forever summed up the divide that has existed between two of America's most indelible, indigenous art forms.

But Cyrus Chestnut, who within a decade-and-a-half has established himself as one of the brightest and most resourceful of jazz pianists, is doing his part to narrow the gap without compromising his art form or patronizing contemporary pop. "Cyrus Plays Elvis" (and we don't mean Costello, pal), Chestnut's smart, swinging homage to rock `n' roll's all-powerful and abiding king, was released last year (Koch) to generally warm reviews.

"It's definitely been a kind of water cooler topic for jazz," says the 44-year-old Chestnut. "Elvis is so iconic that he seems untouchable to anyone else, especially someone coming at him from my own perspective."

But as Chestnut said in a phone interview this week, he doesn't think he's coming to such Presley tunes as "Don't Be Cruel," "Suspicious Minds," "Love Me Tender" or "In the Ghetto" from as far away as most jazz or rock adherents might imagine.

"Elvis loved the blues, and so do I," he says. "Elvis loved gospel music, and that's my foundation, too. ("How Great Thou Art," a hymn Presley recorded and released, is included on Chestnut's disc.) There were these shared connections that allowed me to make my own bridge to these songs and bring them to my personal camp. The idea was not to make it so space age that people couldn't recognize the melodies, but still make the interpretations creative enough to qualify as jazz."

Indeed, what is striking throughout "Cyrus Plays Elvis" is the delicacy and respect with which Chestnut finds his own acoustic-trio settings for such familiar tunes as "Love Me Tender," to which he applies a slippery, but laid-back, swing tempo. At other times, he is smart enough to leave the original context; most notably with "Hound Dog," which is just as much a barn burner in the pianist's hands as it was in Presley's.

"I never thought of myself as remaking the songs as much as I was reinterpreting them," Chestnut says. "I'm doing the same thing that jazz musicians have done with the classic pop songs of the 1930s or 1940s."

Some reviewers have imagined Presley's spirit getting a kick out of Chestnut's concept album. But what would Betty Carter, the late vocalist, modernist advocate and one of Chestnut's earliest employers, have thought of his trafficking with Presley? One can almost hear Chestnut grinning over the phone to this query.

"She may hold up one eyebrow," Chestnut says. "And I could see her asking in that voice of hers, you know, `Why Elvis?' But after she kind of checked out what was going on, I like to think she would have approved. She always said that jazz is about skills and finding your own way without gimmicks. She would have recognized that I'm not playing tricks here, but telling my story through someone else's music."

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