Cyrus Chestnut Trio – Journeys – Jazz Legacy Productions JLP1001011, 59:06 ****:
(Cyrus Chestnut – piano; Dezron Douglas – bass; Neal Smith – drums)
Cyrus Chestnut is one of this generation’s top jazz pianists. As a young lion he performed with Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis and Betty Carter and has issued over a dozen albums as a leader since his 1990 debut. The piano trio setting is hardly new for Chestnut so it may come as surprise to find he considers his 16th release, Journeys, his first true trio record.
The difference between this album and Chestnut’s previous trio outings is one of perception. Chestnut points out many jazz piano trio recordings often feature the bassist and drummer in the background with the piano the foremost instrument. Journeys is more interactive: it contains three musicians – Chestnut, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Neal Smith – who listen to each other, react and work as one unit and strive to create a musical voyage where everyone is an equal.
Nine of the ten tracks on the 59-minute program were penned by Chestnut but the results are a triologue: a three-pronged conversation. The material ranges from ballads to up-tempo and from blues to bop and each tune shows how Chestnut, Douglas and Smith blend their talents into a greater whole.
The title cut is an eminent example of communication at its best. The emotionally intricate piece, like the other compositions, tells a story. This tale is centered on movement: through one’s life, from past to present to future and from one place to another. Smith’s precise brushwork gives the 5/4 rhythm a supple grace; Chestnut’s right hand keyboard lines showcase his personal voicing, which combines a modernist touch with traditional trimmings; and Douglas tries a few tricky moments with the main theme. The ticking “New Light” also progresses figuratively as well as physically. The post bop gem opens with a minor key feel but thrives when it shifts into a major tonality as the solos are set in motion. The minor to major sequence – with augmented and diminished tones – negotiates from darkness to light but the complex interplay also illuminates the trio’s melodic and harmonic muscles.
The mid-tempo number “Flowers on the Terrace” – which at times evokes Vince Guaraldi’s whimsical phrasing – melds Chestnut’s tightly woven but comforting melodic responsiveness with an open-ended structure where improvisation is encouraged. After the trio maneuvers as one through the central motif, Chestnut offers a solo that unhurriedly swings, which is underpinned by bass and drums. Douglas then presents a soulful bass solo that reverberates with quiet majesty.
The only non-Chestnut track is Rodgers and Hart’s oft-covered “Lover.” Chestnut has translated many artists’ material over the years but this is the first time he’s tackled this standard in the studio. Douglas puts forward informed bass passages that slip in and out of double time while Smith holds down a driving beat highlighted by several solo statements that demonstrate his application of a flawlessly managed hi-hat.
Producer John Lee does his usual impeccable job accenting the sound and timbre of each instrument and establishes a sympathetic sphere for the music to be fully appreciated, whether its Douglas’ absorbing solo turn on closer “Goliath” or Chestnut’s humorous asides during the sharply entertaining “Little Jon.”
1. Smitty’s Joint
3. Eyes of an Angel
4. Little Jon
5. New Light
7. The Flowers on the Terrace
8. Yu’s Blues
9. In the Still Hours
— Doug Simpson