Cyrus Chestnut: Reinventing Elvis Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut and Elvis Presley aren't a likely pairing: Chestnut is one of the top pianists of a generation born many years after songs like "Love Me Tender" made Presley the king of rock 'n' roll. Hear an interview and performance from Studio 4A.
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Cyrus Chestnut: Reinventing Elvis

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Cyrus Chestnut: Reinventing Elvis

Cyrus Chestnut: Reinventing Elvis

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(Soundbite of song, "Love Me Tender")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) Love me tender. Love me sweet. Never let me go.


That's the way Elvis did it. Here's the way Cyrus Chestnut does it.

(Soundbite of "Love Me Tender" on piano)

HATTORI: That's Cyrus Chestnut's interpretation of "Love Me Tender." It's one of 11 tracks on his new CD, "Cyrus Plays Elvis." Cyrus Chestnut and Elvis Presley may not be the most likely of pairings. Mr. Chestnut is one of the top jazz pianists of his generation. And that generation was born years after "Love Me Tender," "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" put Elvis on the throne.

Cyrus Chestnut is here on our studio. He's sitting at the Steinway. We're very happy to have him here, I were for a treat.

Hi. How are you doing?

Mr. CYRUS CHESTNUT (Jazz Pianist): I'm doing well. How are you?

HATTORI: Good. You know, we just talked with Geoff Edgers about a children's book, "Who Was Elvis Presley?" Who was Elvis Presley to you when you were growing up?

Mr. CHESTNUT: Well, I still remember this energetic guy dancing like crazy, and people were going crazy. It's like okay, all right, interesting.

HATTORI: But not (unintelligible) seeing them?

Mr. CHESTNUT: But, you know, he wasn't like - I'm sorry, forgive me, Elvis fans - I wasn't like running out grabbing piles of Elvis records and, you know, doing the dances at that time. I'm sorry. It was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHESTNUT: Call me a late bloomer if you will.

HATTORI: Tell me about the moment you decided, hey, I really needed to do some Elvis.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Well, it was in this recording studio, recording "Love Me Tender." When I saw this song, I didn't think much of it. It's like, well, okay, let's just play it. But in the moments of playing it, one of those - I'd like to call it a divine intervention or one of those light bulbs go off in here and says, you know what? You need to research this. So I did research.

Just started reading about Elvis and just listening to the music. I got a songbook and got records and just start listening. I started listening and what I found out is that there were some similarities. Elvis love blues and gospel. I love blues and gospel, so hence a connection. It was not my intention to re-create Elvis or fix, just give an interpretation.

The interpretation could not be space age so that nobody has the idea of what's being not, nor it could be so quote, unquote, "corny" that I get left completely off the planet, oh, why has he did that, you know.

HATTORI: What do you mean by space age? Like…

Mr. CHESTNUT: Well, I mean, you know, like say, for instance, "Love Me Tender," right, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "Love Me Tender")

Mr. CHESTNUT: I mean, it can - conceptually, it couldn't work but that wasn't the idea, you know. I believe in writing music that people enjoy - simple yet complex, complex yet simple.

HATTORI: And you said you didn't want to be corny about it either. What do you mean by that? Just, I mean, without…

Mr. CHESTNUT: Well, you know.

(Soundbite of song, "Heartbreak Hotel")

Mr. CHESTNUT: I mean, you know, that's been done already. That's been done already. So the idea was to try to draw new water out of an old well.

HATTORI: Well, let's hear a little bit of your interpretation of Elvis, if you don't mind. You know, pick a song, "Heartbreak Hotel" maybe.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Hmm. "Heartbreak Hotel."

(Soundbite of song, "Heartbreak Hotel")

HATTORI: A very different take…

Mr. CHESTNUT: (Unintelligible).

HATTORI: …on Elvis.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Very much so.

HATTORI: You know, you talked about not being that into Elvis as a kid. At one point - I assume that you grew to have an appreciation and…

Mr. CHESTNUT: Yeah. I mean, he's impact on American music or just the music in general. I mean, it was one of those - what you're saying, he connected to. He did the music his way. And so, therefore, here I am, coming on a different angel, trying to figure out a way how to do it my own way.

HATTORI: Can you - mind playing a little more?


HATTORI: We'd love to hear "How Great Thou Art."



(Soundbite of song, "How Great Thou Art")

HATTORI: That was beautiful.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Thank you, sir.

HATTORI: Cyrus Chestnut. The album is called "Cyrus Plays Elvis." It is release October 9th.

Cyrus, we love to have you all day and listen, but if you'd favored us with the one last song, we'd love it.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Well, let's see. All of the songs - they're screaming at me, wanting their turn to be played like a third or fourth grade class who wants to come up to the board and all the hands raised, you know, say, me, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHESTNUT: But I think, well, I like it. I like to try now is a soul version of a "Hound Dog."

(Soundbite of song, "Hound Dog")

HATTORI: You can hear the full version of Cyrus Chestnut, playing "Hound Dog" in NPR's Studio 4A, as well as Chestnut's special tribute to Elvis called "Graceland" at our Web site,

Our feature today was produced by David Nogarris(ph) and recorded by Rob Byers(ph).

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm James Hattori.

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