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Cyrus Plays Elvis

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Album Review

You've got to give Cyrus Chestnut credit for not playing by the rules. Although he had little familiarity with the music of Elvis Presley, 15 years into his recording career the gifted jazz pianist decided — virtually on a whim — to record an album of Elvis songs. Chestnut did some homework, and working with his trio members bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Neal Smith, set out to explore. It's a great idea — in theory, but not always in practice. Like any standards — and Elvis' catalog certainly falls into that category at this point in time — the Presley canon is ripe for interpretation. Presley never wrote his own material, but he had the best in the business at his disposal, and the more substantial songs he chose to record (that would mean no "Do the Clam") certainly boasted memorable melodies — the key component to an artist seeking to offer his own interpretive non-vocal take on a song. But Chestnut doesn't always make the most of those melodies here. Cyrus Plays Elvis is most satisfying when the pianist breaks loose from the original setting and leaves it way behind. On the album's opening track, "Hound Dog," he sticks cautiously close to the root melody and tempo until it's solo time, at which point Chestnut turns out a thrilling cascade of tuneful keyboarding. Like a number of other tracks on the album, it's reminiscent of the Ramsey Lewis Trio's approach to interpreting pop in the mid-'60s, not a bad thing by any means, but not very challenging jazz.

At its lamest, Cyrus Plays Elvis is too simplistic and loungey, adding nothing to these familiar songs. The smooth jazz treatment utilized on tunes like "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "Suspicious Minds" probably makes sense if Chestnut's sole aim is to get those songs played on "lite" radio stations, but as an involving listening experience it leaves something to be desired. "It's Now or Never," despite the clever Brazilian/Latin swing arrangement, feels ready-made for a noisy hotel bar where it will be played to oblivious tourists over the sounds of clanking glasses and dumb pickup lines. And "Suspicious Minds," though performed deftly by the trio, doesn't really possess the desperate sense of impending loss that Elvis' version did. There are moments of brilliance, to be sure, and three of them close out the album. "Heartbreak Hotel" is as close to free and adventurous as this record gets, a rolling, unleashed improvisation loosely based on the theme. The first segment of the track serves as a showcase for the drummer, and when Chestnut takes over midway through he immediately proves just how inventive he can be, and how willing he is to let go and venture into uncharted waters. Most of the song sounds nothing at all like the Elvis tune, and it works because of its lack of allegiance to the original melody, not in spite of it. "In the Ghetto" is soulful and heartfelt, as it should be — Chestnut is closer to the song's intent than he is to, say, "Don't Be Cruel" — but it's the final track, "How Great Thou Art," one of many religious-themed songs Elvis recorded over the years, that suggests just how special the entire effort could have been. Like Elvis, Chestnut is a man of faith — he's recorded in the Christian vein before — but he eschews a standard gospel format here and instead delivers a solo piano rendition that is regal, warm, and, yes, inspirational. Perhaps next time Chestnut should stick with Cyrus Plays Elvis Gospel.


Born: 17 January 1963 in Baltimore, MD

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

An adept jazz pianist, Cyrus Chestnut balances his lithe technical skill with a robust, soulful style that speaks to his deep gospel roots and love of swinging hard bop. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Chestnut first studied piano with his father at the age of five, with official lessons beginning two years later. By the age of nine, he was enrolled in the prep program at the Peabody Institute. He graduated from Berklee with a degree in jazz composition and arranging. Chestnut took his time, working...
Full bio
Cyrus Plays Elvis, Cyrus Chestnut
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  • 8,99 €
  • Genres: Jazz, Music
  • Released: 09 October 2007

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