It's hard to find anyone with a subtler touch on the keys than Maryland-born Cyrus Chestnut, who draws from both modern and traditional jazz, while also flirting with R&B and gospel. Such eclecticism has found him performing alongside the likes of Vanessa Williams, Wynton Marsalis, and the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars.
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On his latest project as a bandleader, Chestnut went in a seemingly unlikely direction. The title? Cyrus Plays Elvis (Koch International). Though taking on the Presley canon might seem a bit corny at first, both Chestnut and the King came from a blues and gospel background, and the pianist's aim here was to honor these shared traditions. The disc is not a tribute (despite the cover, which resembles that of Presley's first LP), but Chestnut's personal take on Elvis's more blues-tinged material.
As a youngster in his native Baltimore, Chestnut often played precisely that kind of music in church, and later honed his professional chops at Boston's Berklee College, where he studied jazz composition. He did not, however, leave behind his roots. When he plays a spiritual tune such as "Lord, I Give Myself to Thee," he does so purposefully without overly technical polish. Instead Chestnut seems to reach from deep within his soul, resulting in a dramatic performance that is worth the ticket price alone.
Cyrus Chestnut performs Friday, December 28, and Saturday, December 29, at the Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club, 6701 Collins Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $25. Call 305-403-7565, or visit www.arturosandovaljazzclub.com.