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Keys to the City

Lafayette Gilchrist's Dark Dream Funk

Jefferson Jackson Steele

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Lafayette Gilchrist

By Ian Nagoski | Posted

In his Bolton Hill apartment, Lafayette Gilchrist pulls a stack of photos from behind one of a dozen deep piles of scores and narrates the snapshots of vistas and parties: a landscape in Macedonia, a carved gateway in Algiers, Albert Ayler's legendary drummer Sunny Murray drinking in his Paris home, a side street in Belgium. The shots were taken in places Gilchrist has toured over the past year as the hand-picked pianist for saxophonist and composer David Murray's renowned Octet, a band with a 20-year history of top-flight musicians that has featured, at various times, Wilbur Morris, Olu Dara, Butch Morris, and Henry Threadgill.

From Milan to Montreal, performing next to celebrated musicians like singer Fontella Bass and saxophonist Hammiett Bluiett, Gilchrist was introduced by Murray to the world as an ambassador from Charm City. But on Tuesday nights, when Gilchrist's band, the New Volcanoes, holds residence at the plush Mount Vernon hangout Paloma's, few in the undersized audiences seem to realize they are witnessing the work of one of Baltimore's greatest contributors to creative music.

Since arriving from his native Washington, D.C., in 1986, Gilchrist moved up through the ranks of Baltimore's jazz and funk scenes, playing with the most versatile and serious professional musicians in town--including Dennis Chambers and George Gray--as well fixtures on the free-improv scene like John Berndt and Jason Willett. The self-schooled Gilchrist has also taught creative music performance at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for the past couple of years. While many players get their chops together here and move on to greener pastures, lush with stacks of dead presidents, Gilchrist remains committed to Baltimore. "I want to plant my flag here," he says with deadly seriousness. "I want to develop something unique here in Baltimore."

Gilchrist's three self-released CDs with the New Volcanoes bear the unique mark of his adopted hometown. The Volcanoes' music is as funky as the city's late-night radio, and it ventures with playfulness and exuberance into uncharted sonic territory. All the while, the music maintains, in Gilchrist's words, "a certain degree of functional chaos" (a new civic motto?). Onstage, the six members exchange meaningful glances, grimace deeply into their instruments, or look vacantly around the room, dressed in the most boring, functional duds you've ever seen. They are completely guileless and seem, as a result, thoroughly Baltimore.

Reluctant to pull out charts, Gilchrist prefers, he says, to "let the tunes speak" to the band. Following in Duke Ellington's footprints, he writes with the personality and sound of his band members in mind. "I write for people, not instruments," he says. To demonstrate, he plays a new melody over a 6/8 vamp, à la "I Put a Spell on You," and points out that he wrote it specifically for John Dierker's earthy, snaking tenor sax lines. "This shit is perfect for him, right?" he says, grinning impishly.

Dierker and the other Volcanoes--drummer Nathan Reynolds, bassist Erving Madden, and trumpeter/trombonist Mike Cerri--ride Gilchrist's see-sawing, noirish grooves, beautiful dissonances, and hard vamps, punching them out with the heightened sensitivity and creative interplay that come only from seasoned veterans. Their rock-solid backing allows the leader to descend into harmonic permutations, arpeggiated minarets, and Thelonious Monk-like wide-open lines at the piano.

Dierker, who has played with Gilchrist for six years, points out the challenge of playing his harmonies, which sometimes take the form of the strings of complex chords, other times centering on a pedal point. But the saxophonist enjoys the challenge: "The harmonies are dark. I like that," he deadpans. And Dierker respects Gilchrist's inventiveness, even in the three-sets-a-night bar context: "It's a more sophisticated kind of funk than you'd normally get."

The band's new record, Collagic Dreams, is named for Gilchrist's compositional approach, which involves juxtaposed and layered lines and time-feelings in elastic, dreamy formations. Your average bar band, on any given weeknight, will likely pummel your noggin with some "old favorite." (Whose favorite, I'm not sure.) But Gilchrist's band relies on unconscious processes of listening--on subtle associations taking place in the listener's head, on areas of sound that can't be articulated in newspaper columns, on the supple interplay of his musicians.

"That's where you find the truth," he says, "for yourself."

Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes perform Tuesday nights at Paloma's.

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