What is it? This is innovative jazz and gospel by acclaimed classically trained pianist Cyrus Chestnut and his trio, joined by special guests Carla Cook, James Carter, and Curtis Taylor.

Why see it? Chestnut began his musical journey in childhood at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Baltimore. From there he went on to study at the Peabody Institute and the Berklee School of Music in Boston. This is a lifelong music man, sharing the sound he loves best, joined on stage by some of the hottest talents in contemporary jazz, blues, and gospel.

Who should go? Those ready to let some sanctified sound reach deep down in them and leave them feeling good long afterward.

SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $15-$75 • 1 hour 30 min. • May 29 at 8 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • (843) 579-3100

Holy Roller: Singer/pianist Cyrus Chestnut and guests explore the sacred and the secular


“Precious Lord” from the album You Are My Sunshine
Audio File

To say that Cyrus Chestnut is good at what he does takes the word “understatement” to a whole new level.

A musical prodigy who has been at the piano since early childhood, Chestnut not only plays jazz, blues, gospel, classical, swing, soul, and R&B in their individual styles, but can toss them all in the blender together, hit purée, and pour out something smooth and buoyant that is both all and none of the above.

In other words, it’s all about interpretation, about finding the new paths branching off of an age-old road and making them your own.

I get the feeling that Cyrus Chestnut could groove to that.

Chestnut’s musical roots are in the church: Baltimore’s Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, to be specific. One gets the sense that Chestnut has been moving in harmony since he could move at all — that when he learned to walk, there was an interior metronome already measuring out his steps.

So the story goes, he was learning piano from his father at age five and performing with the choir in his church by age seven.

An academic path that carried him through the Peabody Institute, where he studied classical music, and the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied jazz composition and arranging, led to work alongside greats like Betty Carter, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wynton Marsalis.

Chestnut quickly moved from a sideman role to center stage. More than a dozen albums later, he continues to expand and refine his repertoire.

With upright bass player Michael Hawkins and drummer Neal Smith rounding out his trio, Chestnut performs at jazz festivals all around the world. (Chestnut has also been known to perform solo or sit first piano chair for big band orchestras). He’s a virtuoso who’s equally comfortable playing jazz, gospel, or funk. In a 2007 release, Cyrus Plays Elvis, he even explores the realm of the king of rock ‘n’ roll with his own take on songs like “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “It’s Now or Never.”

For his Spoleto performance, Chestnut will perform Sanctified Swing, a musical tour de force that carries jazz back to its deepest cultural roots in the African American church. In this week’s performance, Chestnut and his trio are joined by three other top musicians — vocalist Carla Cook, saxophonist James Carter, and trumpeter Curtis Taylor — for a note-by-note exploration of sacred and secular music.

This approach reminds the audience that music can be more than just entertainment: it can actually be a means to lift us above the day-to-day experience of life. Chestnut himself has written that he “cannot play or record anything [he] cannot connect to.” And Sanctified Swing probably exemplifies his deepest connections of all.

Gospel, after all, in the church tradition, is all about being caught up in the spirit. Rhythm, call and response, and movement are all means by which a person can connect with a higher power or simply lose a sense of self through an experience shared with others.

It is exactly that joy of connection — of letting the self slip away, embracing a higher power, and carrying the audience along on that spiritual journey — that makes the music of Chestnut and his friends so transcendent.