Whether he is playing actual gospel music or merely adding his own gospel feel to a variety of jazz standards, the genre is embedded in Chestnut's musical psyche. He began playing the piano at age 3, was performing in his family's church in Baltimore at 7 and by 9 was promoted to church pianist.
Chestnut, now 53, has worked in a wide variety of bands over the past three decades and led his own trio. But he said he gets a particular thrill from performing without any accompaniment: "You really find out what you're made of when you strip it all away and do it yourself."
The result was musical risk taking at its finest. Most every tune he selected was reworked with teasing introductions and extensions, as well as clever chordal and melodic twists - all of that delivered with contrasting thunder and delicacy.
His take on "Polkadots and Moonbeams" included a dalliance with the distinctive melody from "Think!," better known as the theme music to TV's "Jeopardy!" game show. "Jeopardy!" creator Merv Griffin originally wrote it as a lullaby for his son.
Other gems included Chestnut's interpretations of "The Old Rugged Cross," a blues and gospel-drenched version of vibes player Milt Jackson's "Bag's Groove," Charlie Parker's bebop standard "Yardbird Suite" and pianist Ray Bryant's "Tonk," which the composer named after a card game he used to play.
The finest moment was Chestnut's teasing, twisting take on the jazz classic "Body and Soul." As he dug deep into various aspects of the tune, he barely hinted at the melody until the end. It became a puzzle to keep the audience guessing - until the pianist dropped in the final few pieces. Even Chestnut was amazed by what the process revealed. "I just played 'Body and Soul' like I've never played it before in my life," he said.
Chestnut's performance earned him a standing ovation. But he had little time to savor it, flying well before dawn to perform Sunday at the 2016 Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival.