Blue Notes: Cyrus Chesnut, Warren Wolf, and more

Warren Wolf
  • Cyrus Chestnut’s “Midnight Melodies” is, believe it or not, the first-ever live album from the Baltimore native and part-time resident. Released as part of the “Smoke Sessions” series from the Smoke Jazz & Supper Club in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this is a straight-ahead piano-trio date with Chestnut backed by the all-star rhythm section of bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis.
    Lundy and Lewis, of course, were longtime bandmates of the late John Hicks, the great, underappreciated pianist who had so much influence on Chestnut. Hicks, who preceded Chestnut in Betty Carter’s band and who was a regular at Smoke, combined the difficult-to-reconcile imperatives of rhythmic drive and harmonic invention far better than most. He played with everyone from Art Blakey to Pharoah Sanders, using the blues to bridge the mainstream to the avant-garde.
    So “Midnight Melodies” is not just a live album but also a tribute album to Hicks. It features three compositions by Hicks and two by Lewis (as well as a pair by Billy Strayhorn), and Chestnut’s astonishing chops are leavened, as always, by an impish playfulness and a churchy fervor. Chestnut plays Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. Jan. 15-18.
  • Warren Wolf, Baltimore’s fast-ascending jazz star, didn’t release any records under his own name this year, but he did tour with his own band, with Christian McBride’s Inside Straight, and in a duo with Aaron Diehl. Wolf also made key contributions to two multi-artist projects released by his record company in 2014: the Mack Avenue Superband’s “Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival: 2013” and “It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue.”
    The label’s all-star Superband is led by bassist Rodney Whitaker and includes vibraphonist Wolf, pianist Diehl, drummer Carl Allen, trumpeter Sean Jones, guitarist Evan Perri, and saxophonist Kirk Whalum. The record begins with a strong hard-bop version of Wolf’s ‘Soul Sister’ with the composer leading the high-speed romp with a flurry of vibes notes. Even Whalum, rarely heard outside a smooth-jazz context, contributes a creditable solo. 
    Wolf, Jones, and Whalum reveal their church roots on a jazz arrangement of gospel singer Donnie McClurkin ‘Speak to My Heart.’ The horns and guitar depart so Wolf and Diehl can enjoy an uninterrupted dialogue on Diehl’s bluesy meditation, ‘Blue Nude.’
    But the highlight of the set is when jazz legend Gary Burton walks on stage. On the video of this moment, Burton says, “Warren has worked up a cool arrangement of a piece by Chick Corea that I recorded with Chick about 40 years ago. It’s a real treat to hear it with the marimba and the vibraphone. It’s called ‘Senor Mouse.’” 
    Standing side-by-side, Burton behind a vibraphone and Wolf behind a marimba, the two men throw phrases back and forth with a supple eloquence in an unaccompanied duet. Each one is playing a different, melodic part, but the two fit together like puzzle pieces. It’s as if you can hear the torch of jazz mallet playing being passed from the past to the future. 
    Wolf, Jones, and Diehl all contribute to the holiday album, “It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue.” Wolf offers a relaxed—and relaxing—version of Vince Guaraldi’s ‘Christmas Time Is Here,’ from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and a version of ‘Carol of the Bells’ that transforms the Ukrainian folk melody into Steve Reich-like pulse music. 
    The album also includes the Christian McBride Trio improvising instrumentally on ‘Silent Night’ and James Brown’s ‘Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto.’ Not to be missed is Cecile McLorin Salvant’s lovely, melancholy vocal on ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’
    Wolf and saxophonist Craig Alston lead a “Holiday Jam” at Caton Castle Saturday, Dec. 27.
  • Paul Bollenback, who teaches jazz guitar at the Peabody Conservatory, also has a new album: “Portraits in Space and Time.” Working as a trio with bassist Joseph Lepore and drummer Rogerio Boccato, Bollenback leads the way through 14 originals—10 by Bollenback alone, three by the trio, and one by Lepore. The trio adopts a laid-back swing and warm timbre on these tunes. But Bollenback, who has recorded with Gary Thomas, Joey DeFrancesco, and Jim Snidero, makes surprising note choices, as if the restraint in the arrangements were merely a feint to set up an ambush.