In seeking to strike a balance between populist appeal and serious credentials, Jazz at the Lesher Center hits the sweet spot with pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who kicks off the second season of the subscription series with two shows Saturday.
Steeped in gospel and the European classical tradition, Chestnut is one of jazz's most consistently entertaining artists, a player who has made a habit of interpreting material mostly ignored by his peers. Whether exploring hymns and spirituals, burning through Vince Guaraldi's beloved score for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" or turning songs associated with Elvis Presley into sleek, ebulliently swinging vehicles for jazz, Chestnut infuses everything he plays with wit, wisdom and soul.
"Any material is fair game," says Chestnut, 50. "I got the inspiration for the Elvis project while recording the song 'Love Me Tender' on a studio session working with someone else, and I wondered if anyone had ever really done jazz arrangements of music that Elvis sang. I had to be careful, because it could end up pretty corny. With the 'Peanuts' album, I grew up with Charlie Brown, and Vince Guaraldi's music was very special to me. Everything I do I try to tell stories about what I've experienced."
Born and raised in Baltimore, Chestnut started studying at the Peabody Institute at the age of 9. He graduated from Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1985 with a degree in jazz composition and arranging after earning just about every award and top honor offered at the school.
After stints backing Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, and Wynton Marsalis (who all happen to hail from New Orleans), Chestnut completed jazz's equivalent of a doctoral program in improvisation with a two-year run in Betty Carter's band, a proving ground for young jazz talent second only to Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
While he soaked up an array of influences, Chestnut's music is still unmistakably marked by "gospel and church, which is part of my DNA, part of the air that I breathe," Chestnut says. "For people to get an honest picture of who you are, you have to present everything. I grew up playing in church, and I studied Beethoven, Bach, Brahms and Mozart."
Presented by the Diablo Regional Arts Association, Jazz at the Lesher Center continues on Aug. 10 with the gifted American-born, London-based song stylist Stacey Kent, a probing singer with an impressively polyglot repertoire. Another alluring artist with a multilingual bent performs on Aug. 17, when Brazilian pianist and vocalist Eliana Elias brings her terrific quartet to the Bay Area for a series of gigs (she also plays Yoshi's San Francisco on Aug. 15-16).
Hailing from São Paulo, Elias has been a major figure on the New York jazz scene since the early 1980s. Her latest album for Concord, "I Thought About You (A Tribute to Chet Baker)," celebrates the cool-toned trumpeter's enduring influence on Brazilian music.
"She's amazing," Chestnut says. "Eliane is such a beautiful player. When she finishes a concert, you really feel as if you were on a journey."
The season closes on Aug. 24 with a Stride Piano Summit featuring 86-year-old piano master Dick Hyman, who learned the style directly from the source, listening to James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington. The triple bill also features stride expert Mike Lipskin, who apprenticed with inimitable stride patriarch Willie "The Lion" Smith, and 26-year-old Stephanie Trick, the style's brightest young star.
"Dick Hyman is the perfect person to lead a stride summit," Chestnut says. "He's an incredible musician who can play any style, but stride is something else. That stuff's hard!"
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kicking off Jazz at the Lesher Center concert series
When: 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr.,
Tickets: $40 ($125 for the series), 925-943-7469,
Other shows: Stacey Kent, Aug. 10; Eliane Elias, Aug. 17; Stride Piano Summit featuring Dick Hyman, Mike Lipskin and Stephanie Trick, Aug. 24