In several Chicago-area appearances this week, Cyrus Chestnut will play Santa Claus--a role that fits the portly pianist partly because of his shape but mostly because of this season's reissue of his 2000 album, A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic), which updates Vince Guaraldi's music from the perennial Peanuts holiday TV show. Every year plenty of folks seem to find religion just in time to cash in on Christmas, but no one could accuse Chestnut of such crassness: he first played publicly in his Baltimore church at age seven, and his previous albums, most notably the gospel-flavored Blessed Quietness (1996), have made it clear that his art remains rooted in a deeply felt spirituality. Unfortunately A Charlie Brown Christmas--a far-flung affair that takes eclectic approaches to both Guaraldi's music and traditional yule melodies, from "Greensleeves" to "The Christmas Song"--is rather short on the bluesy, soul-drenched stylings at which Chestnut excels. By comparison, his 2001 release Soul Food lives up to its title, not only with rollicking funk tunes a la Horace Silver and Art Blakey (the time-honored jazz equivalent of grits 'n' gravy) but also with several quiet meditations that suggest a more metaphysical interpretation--that is, nourishment for the soul itself. The new album does away with the cluttered, overly precious arrangements of the Christmas disc, untethering Chestnut's slow-roasted blues phrasing, cleanly voiced hard-bop chords, and dark, bouncing melodies. One can only hope that for these concerts he'll bring that fervor to his holiday repertoire--if any pianist of his generation can get those herald angels to testify, Chestnut can. Friday, December 14, 8 PM, Harold D. McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, Park and Fawell, Glen Ellyn; 630-942-4000. Saturday, December 15, 8 PM, Center for Performing Arts, Governors State University, Governors Hwy. and Stuenkel Rd., University Park; 708-235-2222. (Chestnut will also present a free in-store performance at 7 PM on Thursday, December 13, at Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan; 312-573-0750.)
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roy Zipstein.