Cyrus Chestnut is a soft-spoken man, and over the phone he comes off as reserved, a little shy. But the jazz pianist's music suggests another side.
"I want to be someone who's never stagnant," says Chestnut, who kicks off Towson University's Summer Performing Arts series tomorrow night at Stephens Hall Theatre. "Jazz is freedom. It's always been about that."
Since the mid-1980s, the Baltimore artist, 43, has been one of the most respected pianists in jazz, releasing 14 well-received albums as a leader. His latest effort, Genuine Chestnut, released in February by the Telarc label, is one of his most refined sets -- shimmering with his witty, graceful style.
"This is the most honest recording so far," says Chestnut, who grew up in the city's Govans neighborhood. "Each [album] has been special, but I felt a lot freer to try a variety of musical things. I never try to record anything I don't connect to."
The album's 11 cuts delve into challenging Latin rhythms ("El Numero Tres"), grooving bebop ("Mason Dixon Line"), heart-felt gospel ("Lord, I Give Myself to You") and fluffy '70s pop (Bread's "If"). Chestnut's lively, always-tasteful approach ties them together.
"Really, the album is one step closer to fusing everything I am," he says. "It is a genuine recording; it tells the story about me."
It's a story of a quietly soulful man who started playing piano at age 5. It was his father, a post office worker, who introduced him to the instrument and encouraged him to play. By age 9, Chestnut was enrolled in the prep program at the Peabody Institute. About that time, he was also playing piano at Mount Calvary Baptist, his family's church. His talent led to a scholarship at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he earned a degree in jazz composition and arranging.
"I really grew up there," Chestnut says of his experience at the school. "All I knew was that I was going to this place to learn about music. I was in a brand new situation, and I had to grow up. Things didn't come easy. But that was OK."
Soon after graduating, Chestnut settled in New York City, where he found work as a sideman for top-shelf artists such as jazz vets Jon Hendricks and Terence Blanchard and pop stars such as Bette Midler and Isaac Hayes. But a gig with bebop legend Betty Carter proved to be a star-turning one.
"She challenged me to push the envelope," Chestnut says. "It was always about trying to be different and looking to play something different."
Soon afterward, about the time he was 30, the artist released his first album as a leader, 1992's two-disc Nut. The next year, he made his major-label debut on Atlantic with the gospel-and-blues-suffused Revelations. On subsequent albums, Chestnut dipped into Tin Pan Alley, sacred music and the classics of Duke Ellington. In 2000, he released a soulful update of Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The musician, who nearly a year ago moved from New York City to Catonsville with his wife and 9-year-old daughter Jazzmine, will release a novel album in the fall: a jazz interpretation of the Elvis Presley songbook.
"Sometimes I've been told you shouldn't do this or that because it may confuse the audience," Chestnut says. "I want the audience to hear the growth. This Elvis project is different."
He chuckles before adding, "I'm always doing something people don't expect from me."
See Cyrus Chestnut at Stephens Hall Theatre, 8000 York Road in Towson, at 7:30 tomorrow night. Tickets are $36 and $10 for children younger than 12 and are available from the Towson University Center for the Arts box office at Osler and Cross Campus drives. For more information about the series, call 410-704-2787 or go to towson.edu/spas.