‘We have to play our truth,’ says Cyrus Chestnut from the piano stool, ‘and our drummer boy’s from Uptown’. The drummer in question is Chris Beck who along with Steve Carrington (saxophone) and Eric Wheeler (bass) is recreating/reanimating Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, although as Cyrus was indicating the quartet are very much doing it their way.
Dressed in festive red, Cyrus embodies a Christmas cheer appropriate for our age. His fingers work the piano keys with worldly optimism — far more than the soundtrack to a cartoon, he and the band are accessing a wistful melancholy within the music. Opening with ‘Christmas is Coming’, Steve Carrington’s saxophone lines create an musical environment far enough away from Guaraldi’s original piano trio that noone is going to compare the evening’s music note-for-note to the record they may well know. Cyrus’s extravagant and elevating approach to improvisation is given room to breath in this chart and ‘Skating’ which follows. As the band reach ‘My Little Drum’, the ‘pum pum pum’ of Eric Wheeler’s bass solo perfectly mimics the onomatopoeic title, flare that is also showcased later on ‘Christmas Time Is Here’.
There’s more of Cyrus’s truth to be found in the set, especially in the spontaneous rendition of ‘Hark the Herald’ which is only slightly hurt by Carrington’s saxophone which never seemed to enjoy the temperature of the room and/or the cold New York day it had to make it through to get on stage. ‘Baby Dance’ is also a triumph of character which didn’t make it onto the original Charlie Brown album in 1965 but was on Chestnut’s version released in 2000. That album begins with the pianist’s original composition ‘Me and Charlie Brown’ which also got a run-out at the Miller Theatre, imbued with the tender expression that makes an evening with Cyrus special.
Outside the Miller Theatre, the lights are up in the trees around the Columbia campus. It feels festive: a fresh Christmas season readies itself to be unwrapped. Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas has its place in so many seasonal playlists — Cyrus Chestnut’s interpretation reminds us that making new traditions is part of what makes our personal changing experiences special and necessary. Tradition but with room for newness. Moreover, as Chestnut mused, Charlie Brown himself is ‘a person of hope’ and at times like these that’s the type of person we all need.