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Piano, Man

Maryland's George Colligan and Cyrus Chestnut release powerful new albums

Cyrus Chesnut's right knows exactly what his left hand is doing.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/9/2009

Cyrus Chestnut will be a special guest of the Warren Wolf Quartet

An Die Musik on Dec. 26.

For more information visit

Editor's note: This story was inadvertantly abridged in the print version; it appears in its intended form here.

Cyrus Chestnut's new album, Spirit (Jazz Legacy Productions), is subtitled Solo Piano, and it's true that the Baltimore native's piano is the only thing heard on the 14 tracks. But the record nonetheless provides a fascinating dialogue between two distinct voices: Chestnut's right hand and his left.

Listen, for example, to "Wade in the Water," the traditional spiritual. The first pass through the verse and chorus takes the expected approach of the right hand playing the melody over the left-hand chords. But on the second verse, the left takes the lead, rumbling through a tune buried in the bass clef, while the right sprinkles chords on top. By the fourth verse, each hand is pursuing a different melody with different phrasing, as if two very different musicians were playing a duet. The right hand seems light and happy, as if basking in the joys of Christian faith, while the left seems to be straining every muscle as it wrestles with temptation and sin. Even though the two hands seem to be pursuing different paths, somehow they mesh to form grand, unexpected chords.

The whole album is full of such one-man duets. Chestnut acquired the virtuoso technique needed to pull off such tours de force at Peabody Prep, at Boston's Berklee College of Music, and on the road with such bandleaders as Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, and Wynton Marsalis. But he acquired the inside knowledge of gospel music, how to balance its soloist melodies, choir-like harmonies, and hand-clapping rhythms, how to balance its opposing pulls of faith and sin, at Baltimore's Mount Calvary Star Baptist Church.

As the title Spirit implies, this is an album of religious music, though Chestnut defines that very broadly. Most of the album comes from the church, but Chestnut also tackles hymn-like numbers from the pop world (Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," and Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water") and from the jazz world (Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," Chris Potter's "All in All," and Horace Silver's "Peace"). Chestnut can find the gospel in anything--remember he released a whole album of Elvis Presley songs, another of Pavement songs, and a third of Charlie Brown songs. The keyboardist invents a new, ear-grabbing bass figure for the Withers number and adds strutting stride piano to Ellington's.

Nor does Chestnut always take the somber, reverential approach to the staples of Sunday services; his playfulness and cheerfulness are too irrepressible for that. "Oh How I Love Jesus," for example, begins slowly and respectfully, but before long it turns into a more exuberant expression of love, kicking up its heels with dizzying right-hand variations that go flying around the theme, even as the left hand tries to keep things solemn. The left hand abandons such sobriety on "Old Time Religion," giving into the right hand's example by pushing and pulling at the rhythm with severe syncopations of its own. Chestnut recorded a similar solo-piano album of spirituals in 1996, Blessed Quietness, but Spirit reveals just how much his playing has increased in depth and breadth since then.

Another gifted jazz pianist born in Maryland also has a new album, but George Colligan's Come Together is rooted not in the state's churches but in its rock clubs. The Howard County keyboardist spent several years in the band led by Marylander Ron Holloway, the last tenor saxophonist Dizzy Gillespie hired. But Holloway also toured with Dr. John, Gil Scott-Heron, and, currently, Susan Tedeschi, proof positive that experience on one side of the pop/jazz divide can fertilize one's playing on the other side. Colligan eventually moved to New York (and more recently Toronto) and has played with such top jazz acts Phil Woods and Ravi Coltrane but has never forgotten Holloway's example, often gravitating toward such like-minded boundary-crossers as Cassandra Wilson.

Come Together opens with the title track, the John Lennon tune that the Beatles released in 1969, the year Colligan was born. The pianist immediately grabs hold of Lennon's famous bass riff and gives it an even funkier, more R&B phrasing. This is reinforced by Russian bassist Boris Kozlov and New Orleans drummer Donald Edwards, Colligan's frequent colleagues in the Mingus Big Band. The format may be jazz piano trio, but the rhythms are very different from the usual swing and bop flavors, for the leader proves that the rock and funk beats of his own era can stimulate heady improvisation as readily as the rhythms of an earlier time.

Ninety seconds into the piece Colligan leaves behind the familiar melody to spin remarkable variations on its materials; he comes back to it from time to time, just as a trampolinist comes back to the canvas to brace for another spring toward the ceiling. Edwards does something similar with the beat, experimenting with new ways to state the same groove, returning to the original pattern just often enough to make clear what he's changing.

Aside from "Come Together" and the old ballad standard, "The Shadow of Your Smile," Colligan wrote the entire album, but his eight compositions continue to make connections between the jazz, rock, and funk worlds. He doesn't rely on cranked-up amplifiers to do this work for him in the manner of lazy fusioneers; he sticks to the acoustic piano and uses the strength of his ideas to forge the links. "Venom," for example, sounds at time like an uptempo swing number with Colligan soloing through eighth-note runs with traditional fluidity. At regular intervals, however, the trio drops in a descending two-bar figure that anchors the tune like a rock 'n' roll riff. Anyone can juxtapose such elements in a tune, but few can make them coexist as naturally as Colligan's trio does here.

"Reaction" is built atop a stop-and-go rhythm that wouldn't work nearly as well as it does if the tension weren't heightened by the slam-bang piano chords and snare hits, and if the release didn't yield such lyrical solos. "Lift" was written by Colligan, but it sounds like one of those Bad Plus covers of a Nirvana song, only with more flexible drumming and more interesting chord substitutions. Colligan nods to McCoy Tyner's influence on "To the Wall," but he also exploits the notion that Tyner's left hand was the Keith Richards/Charlie Watts of jazz to suggest what Tyner might have sounded like if he'd grown up in Maryland in the `70s.

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