Cyrus Chestnut

“Midnight Melodies”

[Smoke Sessions]

3 stars

Whether or not the Steinway in New York’s Smoke Jazz Club is, as Cyrus Chestnut claims in the publicity for this disc “the best piano in the city,” the club was certainly a fine place for Chestnut to play his first (no kidding) live recording.

It’s certainly a fluent and swinging recitation in the grammar of mainstream bebop piano with the kind of sterling veteran trio mates who can’t help but bolster the cause: bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis. There a few tiny, transient episodes of post-Cecil Taylor splatter piano, but what you’ve mostly got here is an adherence to the rules so stringent that, for all its prettiness and swing, there isn’t an ounce of musical surprise in the whole disc.

We learned decades ago, when Chestnut, in the first flush of fame, brought a trio to the Calumet Cafe on Allen Street, that all those years as a gospel pianist and as an accompanist for Betty Carter made Chestnut nothing if not proficient in the showbiz of piano trio music. (I love the sudden, sarcastic pseudo-Jarrett groan he throws in here.) The trouble is when he plays all manner of bluesy stutter-chords here, it’s effective only up to a point. And beyond that point, it just reminds you how much you would rather hear them on a Gene Harris disc.

Chestnut is a fine working jazz pianist with trio-mates of solid gold (listen to bassist Lundy’s melodic banter with him during the melody statement of “Bag’s Groove”). But it’s almost as if the declared excellence of the club’s piano inhibited him and prohibited him from going too deep into the earth with it or taking it too far out into the ionosphere.

A very good jazz pianist but a very earthbound and polite one, too.

– Jeff Simon