God's Own Player

The fact that pianist Cyrus Chestnut grew up surrounded by great music shouldn't come as much of a shock. Jazz isn't for everyone, after all, and a passion for the genre is often instilled in its purveyors at a young age. From there, a player is apt to carry the torch to the grave.

When his day of reckoning comes, Chestnut is likely to have his torch handy; he's also likely to have a row of ivories within arm's reach. Chestnut and his piano have been joined at the fingertips since he was seven. Raised in an energetic Baptist household, the Baltimore native had his first run-in with what would become his signature instrument at Mt. Calvary Star Baptist Church, where he listened in awe as his father played hymns on the piano and the congregation sang along. The sheer joy of it knocked him out, and those Sundays stayed with him, as did his first brush with the voice of gospel great Clara Ward. Ever since then, Chestnut has never second-guessed his faith and its role in steering his creativity in the secular arena. You get the impression that Chestnut's compellingly harmonic, technically stunning style is guided by heavenly hands as much as it is by the hands of his most pronounced mortal influences, among them Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Bud Powell.

On his latest release, Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols, Chestnut treats his supple, wandering fingers to an unconventional run-through of 12 church-going favorites. You'd hardly guess you're hearing religious standards the way this subtle virtuoso strips them down to their bare, bluesy essence. "We Three Kings" flits between sad, dirge-like sluggishness and an uplifting crescendo of notes while never losing sight of its unmistakable melody; "Walk with Me Jesus" has an almost saucy juke-joint quality; and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" is reduced to delicate splashes of inspired improvisation. While it features no original compositions, Blessed Quietness is Chestnut's most autobiographical work to date, "an open book," he has said, "of who I am."

Chestnut's unwavering spirituality is rivaled only by his formidable skill on both piano and organ. By 1985, a degree in jazz composition and arranging to his credit, Chestnut was out looking for work. A year later, he had found a steady gig with virtuoso vocalist Jon Hendricks. Soon after that, he had moved on to projects with Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, not to mention road stints with the Marsalis brothers, George Adams and Slide Hampton and a two-year tenure with jazz legend Betty Carter. Chestnut gained the confidence to step out as a bandleader just as the buzz surrounding his playing was peaking in jazz corners nationwide. Even by hype's inflated standards, his 1994 debut, Revelation, was just what its title promised. The disc garnered nearly universal acclaim, not only for its performances, which are stellar throughout, but for its mature compositions -- nine of which were written by Chestnut.

Chestnut stayed with the trio format on Revelation's follow-up, The Dark Before the Dawn, and the results are no less swinging. Last year's Earth Stories only reinforced Chestnut's status as a furtherer of the purist aesthetic. Regardless, that's not a reputation that Chestnut -- a workaholic who's always game for a fresh challenge -- prefers to highlight in bold. Live in Houston Friday, the Cyrus Chestnut Trio will included Chestnut on piano, Steve Kirby on bass and Alvester Garnett on drums.

-- Hobart Rowland

The Cyrus Chestnut Trio will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, March 7, at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Tickets are $15 to $45. For info, call 524-5050.

Chris Smither -- For a guy whose career was on a downward spiral more than 20 years ago, guitarist/songwriter Chris Smither has made quite the comeback. After being relegated to also-ran status in the early 1970s despite a promising pair of early albums, Smither ground out a bare-bones living on the folk circuit. That persistence paid off, and today Smither finds himself enjoying the sustained applause that previously eluded him. An active picker whose brooding lyrics align him with such masters of melancholy as Townes Van Zandt, David Olney and Jesse Winchester, Smither nonetheless keeps the mood aloft with a dry sense of humor and a light touch on the strings. His affinity for the blues gives his music a timeless quality, and the classics he tosses into every set are given enough twists and turns for him to call them his own. If anything, his time on the margins gave him that much more to tell us about. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, March 8. Tickets are $10. 528-5999. (Bob Burtman)

Toni Braxton -- Since the release of Secrets last July, Toni Braxton has been struggling with an issue that, if decided incorrectly, could have turned her into just another forgettable pop diva: whether or not to wear ... a weave. Her helmeted look in the "You're Making Me High" video had some fans wigging out about her sudden "deblackening" and other, newer listeners paying attention. But when she began to win some awards, the weave went out and the soul went back in, suggesting the routine was just a shrewd attempt at media manipulation. And, unlike the hair, it worked. Besides, if the classy and revealing numbers she's performed at recent award shows are just as classy and revealing in concert, who cares about hair? At the Summit, 10 Greenway Plaza, at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 9, with Kenny G. Tickets are $36.25 and $46.25. 629-3700. (Craig D. Lindsey

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