Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 10, No.6, 2011

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Robert J. Lewis
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David Solway
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Samuel Burd
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Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Donato & Bouchard
Ingrid Jensen
John Roney
Russell Malone
David Binney
Kurt Rosenwinkel
Mimi Fox
Voo Doo Scat
Coral Egan
Martin Taylor
Jordan Officer
Melody Gardot
Jean Vanasse
Yves Léveillé
Sylvain Provost
Louciana Souza
Patricia Barber
Jill Barber
Corrine Bailey Rae
Chet Doxas
François Bourassa
Sylvain Luc
Neil Cowley
Marianne Trudel
Florence K
Terez Montcalm
2010 Montreal Guitar Show (Sylvan Luc)
2008 Jazz en Rafale Festival (Montreal) - Mar. 27th - April 5th -- Tél. 514-490-9613 ext-101 (featuring David Binney)
Montreal Jazz Festival 2010







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

Featured artist: CYRUS CHESTNUT

© Cyrus Chestnut Website

Half of what I say is meaning less.
John Lennon

When Cyrus Chestnut mounted the podium for his 2011 Montreal International Jazz Festival concert at Salle Gesù, I wasn’t sure if he came to play the piano or haul it away. When he sat down at the instrument, he made it look like a toy, but there was no toying around when it came to his playing -- with an ever so gentle and preternaturally delicate touch that mocked his girth.

But even before a note was played, this grand man of dignified bearing and consummate intelligence introduced his latest album, Journeys, with a caveat: that improvisation -- the Gloria and preserve of jazz -- is playing without a chance to edit. For the serious musician, the significance of this daunting utterance cannot be overestimated. Chestnut was transposing into speech what the music has already confessed, but our judgment refuses: that composition is superior to improvised jazz, in particular, recorded improvisation.

In today’s climate, with perhaps the exception of the new wave of Scandinavian jazz, Chestnut is rightfully concerned that insufficient attention is being paid to composition, and that in certain circles laboriously worked out, worked on solos are being slighted for betraying the spirit of improvisation. Chestnut’s courageous declaration, which constitutes a necessary criticism of contemporary jazz, explains why many jazz musicians and listeners keep returning to the American Songbook, or, in the case of Jarrett and Corea, to classical music.

Without dissing spontaneous invention performed at the highest level, Chestnut is asking both musicians and listeners to consider the possibility that if modern jazz is ailing, it is not only because improvisation has taken precedent over composition, but the reasons for it are being willfully ignored by those who should be making it an issue: the elite jazz schools and jazz critics. Is there an argument to be made that if we revered the musicians less and the genre more jazz would be in a better place?

When a musician is fluent in the language of music, he can play whenever, whatever and with whomever he wants. He soon discovers that it is much easier to improvise than compose, without acknowledging that the former constitutes the musical path of least resistance. On top of which it is now de rigeur for elite jazz musicians to play musical chairs instead of making long-term commitments to the group concept. Who hasn’t Pat Metheny played with during the past fifteen years? Nowadays, it is not unusual for a musician to find himself ‘live’ or in the studio without having met, much less practiced with, the other musicians. We shouldn’t be surprised that the typical jazz CD excites interest for about as long as it takes a reviewer to dutifully listen to and hype it up. Bad reviews of jazz are as rare as worthwhile music. Jazz devotees who depend on informed criticism for making decisions on concert selections and CD/vinyl/DVD purchases are being sold down the river.

Why do lovers of jazz, with few exceptions, listen to their favourite jazz albums less frequently than their favorite songs (a Beatle tune, a Rogers & Hart standard)? Because most improvised music cannot withstand the scrutiny of repeated listening. It is an inviolable law that after the initial listening, all recorded improvisation becomes composition since the notes are exactly the same. And when a jazz musician consents or seeks to record his music, he is unequivocally declaring that he wishes the music to be heard more than once, which means he is implicitly asking the listener to consider as composition music (the solo) that was created on the spur of the moment.

The brilliant French jazz critic, André Hodeir (Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, 1956), attempting to reconcile the demands of composition with the spirit of improvisation writes:

The piece may have been worked out, but we must make clear what we mean by this. It is not an organized composition, nor even the product of creative meditation, but the result of a crystallization of thought in the course of successive improvisations. Even such a limited kind of working out makes it possible to eliminate weaknesses in continuity that pure improvisation lets by.

But he also cautions that too much working out can lead to sterile play (meaning playing from memory). He goes to say: “It is hard not to cherish a preference, at least secretly, for the miracle of continuity in a burst of pure improvisation. “ By that formulation, the greatest improviser/composer who ever lived was Mozart, who composed entire operas and symphonies in his head.

What is jazz all about,” asks Montreal music critic Juan Rodriguez? When “the familiar and the unknown coexist very nicely.”

For his appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Cyrus Chestnut and his trio demonstrated what can result when the worked out and worked on open up a realm that is at once agreeably familiar but enticingly only partially disclosed -- a continuously mutating realm exclusive to jazz and the custodian musicians who endeavour to spontaneously make explicit the nexus between “the familiar and unknown.”

With the control of a Renaissance master, Chestnut’s right hand ascents and descents, depending on the mood or theme, unfolded like threads of silk or a twist of twill, while the left hand, with a mind of its own, was ever mindful of its role in both support and muse. Unlike Keith Jarrett, who used to spend ¾ of every solo concert searching for the next idea that may or may not arrive, Chestnut refuses to enter into the public domain an idea that has not been thoroughly dismantled and reassembled. We instantly recognize the payoff: those sudden and unexpected bursts of articulation where the unfamiliar has been rendered with such clarity that we want to return to it again and again. These “moments magicaux,” which are the sine qua non of composition (recorded music), are not to be confused with ‘groove,’ where a musician is said to be ‘in a groove,’ which, consequent to a repeating motif, is more of a comfort than creative zone, or the musical equivalent of an opium den.

Chestnut dedicated the Salle Gesù concert to the unveiling of his most recent album, Journeys, a sometimes pensive, sometimes exhilarating rite of passage through swing, pop and gospel. Of the many pleasures that were the issue of the music was the deep connection and rapport between musicians who didn’t so much follow each other as coexist on the same wave length, which could spin, dip, rollover and turn on the moment. The audience was treated to gorgeous pianissimos as well as sometimes woolly, sometimes wispy soundscapes produced by bassist Dezron Douglas -- just rewards owed to exceptional musicians who had done their homework.

Cyrus Chestnut has dared to make his abode that nebulous area in jazz where the listener, by virtue of repeated listening, perforce comes to regard an improvised solo as composition. Deeply concerned that the balancing act that is jazz is tottering, Chestnut wants the jazz solo to once again compete with the standards established by composition.

That Mr. Chestnut is not nearly as well known as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and now Brad Meldhau, or not as modern as Kenny Warner is merely a point in fact. He is making a critical point and jazz can do no better than give it its due. If there is indeed a crisis in jazz, the flipside of any crisis is opportunity.

Cyrus Chestnut is a breath of fresh air in a stagnant pool of undoubtedly gifted musicians who have turned their backs on the challenge of composing enduring works of music, who are more wrapped up in their mystique than music making, and have forsaken the concept of the group (through thick and thin) for a tenuous network of collaborators that come and go. He is holding up to the mirror the bloated category of itinerants posing as musicians searching for they know not what, and in their desert wake they have left a trail in the sand (a CD/year) that will not survive the first windy “Night in Tunisia.”



John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Thelonius Monk
Charlie Mingus
Oscar Peterson
Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Wes Montgomery
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