Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cyrus Plays Elvis

Cyrus Plays Elvis
By Cyrus Chestnut
Koch Records

Elvis Presley might be the king of rock ‘n’ roll, but many consider him an imitator of the great African American R&B artists who preceded him, even appropriating some of their hits. Now Cyrus Chestnut returns the favor, reinterpreting the Presley songbook in a jazz context with his latest release, Cyrus Plays Elvis.

While the Presley canon might seem like an odd (the snobbish might say pandering) choice for a jazz musician, Chestnut has long been attracted to crowd pleasing music, regularly playing Christmas music during his holiday season engagements, for instance. Like Presley, Chestnut also has deep gospel roots. Though at times uneven, Cyrus Plays Elvis is largely unabashedly breezy, fun music that would nicely go with an afternoon at the local coffee-house.

CPE opens with “Hound Dog,” actually one of the most faithful adaptations, taken as an up-tempo rollicker that does feature some dazzling runs by Chestnut. There are perils in tackling an iconic artist’s songbook, in that opinions will vary widely as to which are the true highlights and which are merely over-rated hits. Honestly, “Hound Dog” never really did it for me, and neither did the following “Don’t Be Cruel.” However, Chestnut gives it an interesting twist, taking it at a slower tempo to get to its blues core, at times even throwing in some Monkish accents.

“Can’t Help Falling in Love” gets a much more faithful reading, that sticks largely to the original melody. The addition of Mark Gross’s soprano is pretty, at the risk of sounding syrupy. As a delicate love song “Love Me Tender” is more successful, showcasing Chestnut inventiveness but maintaining an intimate vibe. Gross returns on tenor later on the more successfully sentimental “Don’t,” but one cannot help thinking this would have been better as a strictly trio release, given Chestnut is much more interesting as a soloist, but plays primarily a supportive role on the horn tracks.

There is one “inspired by” original titled “Graceland” that nicely demonstrates his trio’s compatibility swinging together nicely. “Heartbreak Hotel” ranges furthest afield from the original Presley version, given a darker sound, slower tempo, and more elliptical melody statement by Chestnut, as well as more turbulent percussion by drummer Neal Smith. Chestnut also ratchets down “In the Ghetto,” from a sweeping social-issue song (one of very few in the Presley songbook) to an introspective personal statement.

“How Great Thou Art” was probably the only tune here that was in Chestnut’s repertoire before the Presley project. It is one of the many hymns Presley recorded. (According to his biographers, Presley’s favorite pastimes included singing gospel songs with friends, and listening to the records of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.) His spare but stirring solo performance is a fitting conclusion to his Presley program.

CPE is at its best without a guest horn, and when the arrangements venture away from the familiar Presley recordings. Throughout, Chestnut is a consistently inventive soloist who often does put his personal stamp on these songs. Considering the proliferation of Beatles jazz projects, it seems strange the home-grown King remains relatively untapped. CPE takes a credible, if not groundbreaking, crack at his songs.

(Note: This review was reprinted in the 12/6/07 edition of The Epoch Times by permission of J.B. Spins.)