If you're going to a Cody ChesnuTT show these days, do not expect to hear anything from his debut opus, 2002's The Headphone Masterpiece. Instead, Cody has decided to go in a completely different, unexpected direction. Gone is the lo-fi, minimalist sound that everyone came to know him for. In its place, Cody has added lush horn arrangements, layered background harmonies and a soulful sound that can't be denied. I had the fortune of seeing Mr. ChesnuTT (yes, that's two capital Ts, folks) as he debuted tracks from his upcoming release Landing on a Hundred to a rapt audience at New York City's S.O.B.'s and even got to chat with him about the upcoming album and why he'll no longer be performing some of the material from Headphone Masterpiece.
Where Cody's debut found him alone with his guitar and recording tools, Cody took the S.O.B.s stage this time around with a 10-piece band in tow, including a horn section, three guitars, keyboards, a drummer and two dynamite background singers. If that hadn't been a clear indication that the night's performance was going to be a throwback to more soulful times, the first succession of songs set the night's mood. From there, he went on to play a succession of new tracks, including funky guitar and horn jam "Greatest Attraction on the Earth," the '70's-influenced soul of "That's Still Mama," the jazzy "What Kind of Cool Will We Think of Next?" and the first song ever heard from the project, "Under the Spell of the Handout."
After the night's performance, it was obvious that Cody was channeling some soul greats for this project. What was it that took him in this direction?
"I listened to those old records," he told me. "You know, Marvin [Gaye] and Stevie [Wonder] and Donny Hathaway...and even before that. I just drew upon all of that and just tried to capture it and it turned out how it turned out." And capture he did. There were several moments during the show where Cody, with his scruffy beard and smooth demeanor, seemed like he was the reincarnation of Marvin Gaye. "It's just a feeling, man. It's the way the music touches me and how it feels," he said when I brought it to his attention.
And it's that feeling that seems to be what Landing on a Hundred is going to be all about. As Cody described the title's meaning, it's a play on the phrase "keep it one hundred." "Keep it one hundred means keep it truthful, keep it real," he said. "So it's landing on something truthful, landing on something real." That's believable with songs like the romantic "More Than a Wedding Day," which he dedicated to his wife, and the funky "Do Better" that caused him to step into the crowd and cut a rug. Then there's "Parting Ways," a song he originally performed at Dave Chappelle's Block Party and has re-recorded for the album, and the last song of the night, a number simply titled "Thank You," in which he thanks the audience for giving their time and energy.
Noticeably absent from the night's set, however, was any of his material from The Headphone Masterpiece. When one fan called out for Cody to play his 2002 hit "Look Good in Leather," he was denied. "Being an artist is a great responsibility because people will hang on your every word and expect you to be those words," Cody told me after the show, "So I've been more selective about the energy I've put out into the universe." Part of why he's so cautious about the message he sends out is because he's become a family man in recent years, raising two kids with his wife of 19 years. "My son has yet to hear me curse," said Cody. "One day he did hear somebody curse and he told me 'Father if I ever heard you curse, I'd be devastated.' That's what I bring to the stage with me."
Though it's been a while since we've all seen this much of Cody, the absence from the scene has really done him good. Where the focus it seems had always been more on his lyrics than the music surrounding them, the performance showed that this time around he was more interested in creating a richer experience. I asked what the most importing thing he learned during his time away. His answer? "Creativity, real art, has its own time. Its own spirit. It can survive by itself. I learned to take my time."
[Photos: Michael Mathias]