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The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist


By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 7/25/2007

When Lafayette Gilchrist celebrated the release of his 2005 album Towards the Shining Path at Highlandtown's Creative Alliance at the Patterson, he wore his gray Kangol hat with the gold piping at a jaunty tilt and stomped on the keyboard pedals with his basketball shoes. He would not have looked out of place in a Run-D.M.C. video, and the rhythms of his compositions hinted at the hours he spent watching hip-hop videos as a teenager in Prince George's County.

But as Gilchrist's big hands massaged the keys of his Kurzweil PC88, the Bolton Hill resident did things to those funk and hip-hop beats that had never been heard on MTV. The central groove never faltered, but the big beats were shoved forward and backward; they might drop out momentarily or be surrounded by a cloud of secondary beats supplied by the drummer and electric bassist beside him. The beats linked up to catchy melodic phrases, which in turn opened up into shape-shifting harmonies played by the five horn players behind him. As the beats swirled around, hip-hop turned into jazz.

"I'm always seeking a dialogue between popular rhythms and the improvising process," he explains. "For me to make personal music, I have to come out of the music I grew up with and love, and that's hip-hop and go-go. But I want to go deeper into that music than what you hear on the radio. When I'm dialoguing with those musics, there has to be space in the conversation where we can really get into it and go somewhere no one's gone before. The result is not so much the sound of jazz as the spirit of jazz."

Something was happening at the Patterson that had implications far beyond the local music scene. Here was a solution to one of the most vexing dilemmas in modern music: How can jazz transform the black popular music of today into complex improvisations as it once transformed swing and ragtime? Or, to turn the question around, how can funk and hip-hop shrug off their formalist straitjackets and stretch out into new musical territory? Not that there's anything wrong with swing-based jazz or commercial funk, but if you love both Thelonious Monk and George Clinton, surely there must be a way to forge a musical link between the two.

These questions are vexing because the very quality that makes funk and hip-hop so pleasurable--the power and the precision of their beats--makes them difficult for jazz to digest. Jazz requires a rhythmic elasticity for the sudden shifts that make it so pleasurable. As thousands of bad fusion and smooth-jazz records have demonstrated, adhering too closely to a repetitive groove kills the pleasures of jazz. As thousands of straight-ahead jazz records have proved, abandoning the groove too often kills the pleasures of pop. How can you accommodate the best of both worlds?

The most persuasive answers have come from three young African-American pianists: Houston's Jason Moran, Delaware's Matthew Shipp, and Baltimore's Lafayette Gilchrist. Moran and Shipp have pursued strategies similar to what Gilchrist was doing at the Patterson that night; they have embraced funk and hip-hop grooves, but they have also messed with them and added to them, creating so many variables within each piece that the music can go in any direction at any time. Moran and Shipp have already won national acclaim for their efforts; Gilchrist is on the cusp of similar recognition.

The vehicles for that recognition are two new albums: Gilchrist's first piano-trio project, Three (Hyena), and his first as a member of the David Murray Black Saint Quartet, Sacred Ground (Justin Time), two of the year's best jazz releases thus far. To support the release of Three, Gilchrist brought his trio to An die Musik on June 9. Wearing a tuft of dark hair beneath his lower lip, a brick-red shirt over his black slacks, and a puffy khaki cap atop his head, he dug into the venue's grand piano with a confidence that demonstrated how much he had grown in the 19 months since the Patterson gig.

In his liner notes for Three, Gilchrist describes his composition "In Depth" as reflecting "the pride of James Brown and the depth of inquiry of Andrew Hill." At the downtown venue, he backed up that claim with a funk groove worthy of the Godfather of Soul and a lyrical piano solo worthy of the late, great Blue Note jazz pianist. But if you listened closely, you realized that drummer Nate Reynolds and bassist Anthony "Blue" Jenkins weren't playing the same phrases over and over; they managed to keep the pulse strong and steady even as they restated the groove different ways and surrounded it with ancillary accents. Meanwhile, Gilchrist himself locked into the beat at certain junctures, let go of it to pursue a harmonic tangent, locked in again, and let go again.

It was an exhilarating performance. It demonstrated that you can improvise freely and creatively over beats that stomp rather than swing. It proved that jazz can be as persuasive physically as it is intellectually. It opened a door that might let hip-hop out of its formulaic box--and might let jazz escape from its locked-room obsession with the past. It was a fusion that could only be accomplished by someone who loves hip-hop as much as he loves jazz.

"When musicians try to play funk or hip-hop with a condescending attitude, like Wynton [Marsalis] does on his new album, they always sound corny," Gilchrist says. "The drum timbres are all wrong, and the beats are whack. You can tell they're slumming. To do it right, you have to have a knowledge and respect for the tradition--both the jazz tradition and the hip-hop tradition. It has to be part of you and you have to be part of it."

Gilchrist, who turns 40 on Aug. 3, lived in Washington, D.C., till he was 14, when his mother remarried and moved out to Prince George's County. As a teenager, one of his favorite musicians was Prince, but he absorbed all the rap and R&B hits on the radio as well as the local specialty, go-go music. He danced to all the top go-go acts--E.U., Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, Redds and the Boys--but his favorite was Chuck Brown.

"Chuck lived down the street from my Aunt Eudora in Capitol Heights," Gilchrist remembers. "And we'd go over there and hear him rehearsing. I liked Chuck because he was different--he was playing jazz standards like `A Train' and `Harlem Nocturne' in go-go arrangements with these sophisticated horn lines. That's how I learned those songs, and when I heard the standard jazz versions later, I thought they were playing the tunes wrong. But it taught me that you can combine funk grooves and jazz."

Gilchrist hadn't taken up an instrument; he was just going to the shows to check out the girls. His main pursuit at the time was boxing. He won some tournaments as a bantamweight, but he says his new stepfather pressured him to quit. By 15, he had no major activity to focus his mind; he was angry and not doing well in school. By the time he was a high school senior he was ready to join the Army.

"The one nice thing my stepfather did for me," Gilchrist acknowledges, "was to steer me away from the Army. He was a Vietnam vet, so he knew. I made a deal with him and my mother that I would try a year of college. My SATs weren't good enough to get into UMBC--I had to take summer courses there so I could enter as a freshman in the fall."

It was the summer of 1986, and the sullen 18-year-old was in a remedial English class in UMBC's Fine Arts Building, wishing he was at the pool with his friends. After class, he wandered through the building and happened upon the music department's recital hall.

"I swear this is true," Gilchrist insists, still a bit incredulous himself. "I walked in and a nine-foot Steinway piano was sitting on the stage, unattended and unlocked. The whole theater was dark except for one stage light shining on the piano. I sat down on the piano bench, put my foot on the sustain pedal, and pretended to play. But what I pretended to play sounded pretty good. My roommate came into the hall and said, `I didn't know you played the piano,' and I said, `I don't.'

"I was very angry at the world at that time. When my boxing was taken away from me, I felt a bitterness I'd never felt before. I knew that bitterness was going to lead me nowhere, but I couldn't get out of it. When I sat down at the piano, though, I felt peaceful. I knew I could heal whatever was ailing me with that piano."

He was starting from scratch at age 18, long after most musicians pick up their instruments, but he was determined. That fall he befriended Freddie Dunn, a trumpeter who was an actual music major at UMBC. Gilchrist played Dunn some of the tunes he'd been improvising on the piano, and Dunn played them back on the trumpet and showed the musical neophyte how the notes looked on staff paper. They knew that improvised instrumental music meant jazz, but they didn't know much about the genre.

"Wynton [Marsalis] was the only cat our age we'd heard of who played jazz," Gilchrist recalls. "And he was so serious. He talked about Thelonious Monk like Monk was a friend of his. So we got a cassette tape of Monk's greatest hits, played it several times, and finally decided we liked it. Our journey into jazz started right there--with that cheap little tape. Anything we heard Wynton talk about, we'd go get it--Coltrane, Parker, whatever.

"I'm a middle-class black kid from Prince George's County, and I've never heard of these guys. What does that tell you? We went to see Wynton at Pier Six, and Stanley Jordan, a young guitarist, opened the show. That's when it hit us--`Man, what's happening here? Why's Wynton always talking about Monk and Coltrane and never about cats his own age?'"

Marsalis was talking about some younger musicians, but they were his fellow "young lions," musicians who'd been born in the '60s but who were playing and dressing as if they were living in the '50s. They claimed to be preserving the tradition, but Gilchrist didn't buy it.

"That's not the tradition," he exclaims. "Jazz has always been about what's happening `right now,' as Duke Ellington put it. That's the tradition. Yeah, if I play with Carl Grubbs, I'm glad to do Coltrane's music, because he grew up with Coltrane. That's his music, and he has something to teach me about it. But for me to hook up with a young musician and play `How High the Moon'? That never interested me. My model is Miles Davis, who said, `If you want to hear what I did in 1956, go buy the record, because there's no way I'm going to play that in 1986.'

"I'm proud to be a child of hip-hop," Gilchrist says. "That's what we danced to--hip-hop parties are where we came on to girls. I think jazz musicians make a big mistake when they extricate themselves from their social milieu. That's the mistake a lot of the young lions made when the record companies scooped them up, put them in suits, and encouraged them to pretend they were playing with Miles Davis in 1955. On the other hand, I can't play hip-hop rhythms straight. If a groove can't breathe, if you've drained away all the gooey, juicy lubrication by too much planning or programming, you've prevented any possibility of invention happening."

Gilchrist had no interest in becoming another young lion, but neither did it interest him to make a career of playing behind rappers and R&B singers. He did some session work with the Basement Boys, the geniuses of Baltimore house music, and he enjoyed it, but it wasn't something he wanted to do full-time. He wanted to compose and improvise his own music. To create his own sound, Gilchrist knew he'd have to subject the rhythms of his own generation to the improvisatory slicing, dicing, and blending of jazz.

To do that he'd have to find musicians who were equally comfortable in the worlds of hip-hop and jazz. He'd already bonded with Dunn. He convinced bassist Vince Loving, who'd played with local drum powerhouse Dennis Chambers in the legendary Baltimore fusion trio Skylab, to get involved. Gilchrist brought in the Chambers-like drummer Nate Reynolds as well. It was 1993, and Gilchrist named the band the New Volcanoes, because he thought they sounded like "a force of nature."

When this foursome recorded some demos at the UMBC recording studio, the faculty engineer at the studio, Mike Cerri, proved such a like-minded trumpeter that the quartet became a quintet. That quintet (plus James Dephilipo on the tubalike euphonium) recorded Gilchrist's debut album, The Art Is Life, which he released on his own label. Another UMBC student, reed player John Dierker, replaced Dephilipo for the second self-released album, Asphalt Revolt.

"I'd be walking through the halls at school late at night, and he'd be there playing," Dierker remembers. "There weren't many people around at 2 a.m., so that impressed me. When I started jamming with him, I found he was a piano player I enjoyed playing with, which was unusual. Most pianists have a tendency to cloud things up with too many notes and predictable chords. Lafayette's playing is more open--he's playing more interesting chords, more dissonant. It's more in tune with the kind of stuff I enjoy playing."

With a core of like-minded players behind him, Gilchrist wrestled with making jazz that made sense to him. How do you make a groove breathe without letting it get away from you? How do you sound as powerful and precise as a drum machine without sounding as monotonous as a drum machine? Gilchrist's approach is to make sure everyone in the band is always thinking about the groove without always playing it. That's especially true of his current bassist Anthony "Blue" Jenkins (Loving died unexpectedly in the fall of 1999) and drummer Nate Reynolds.

"Blue is able to take a groove and give it color, structure, thoughtfulness, and playfulness," Gilchrist says. "I like a bass to sound like it's rumbling under my feet. If I hear the same bass line through a whole song, it drives me crazy--I want to hear the music develop over the course of the piece. If I tell Nate, `The drums in my head are going boom-bap-boom-bappity-bap-bap,' he'll circle around that without playing exactly what I described. I love that. That's what makes it elastic. I hate click tracks. Click tracks are the worst thing to happen to black music."

In addition to the rhythm section, the New Volcanoes horns bear more of the melodic and harmonic weight, but they, too, are encouraged to think rhythmically at all times.

"No one else has a sense of rhythm like Lafayette," Dierker says. "It definitely has more of a funk or hip-hop feel to it, but that's no more confining than swing. You find a way to make it interesting or you don't--a lot of straight-ahead players make swing time boring. Lafayette finds ways to overlay other things on those rhythms, you can take things out of the groove to break it up and add secondary patterns--sneaky rhythms, as I call them."

"Most people think of funk as a repetitive groove that's repeated over and over," adds Greg Thompkins, who plays tenor sax in Gilchrist's band. "But with this band, once the groove and melody are established, we're encouraged to develop what we're playing. Even when we're soloing, the rhythm section will be changing the patterns. All the guys in the band have played in funk bands, so they know how to stay in the pocket, but they've also played in jazz bands, so they know how to get out of it as well."


After a few years in area clubs, Gilchrist arrived at a point where he needed to be heard outside Baltimore, and to do that he needed connections. Summoning up his courage, he started walking up to famous jazz artists and introducing himself. In the spring of 1999, that approach paid off in two crucial contacts. He met Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who was playing with Cassandra Wilson at the Barns of Wolf Trap in Virginia. A few weeks later he met tenor saxophonist David Murray at the National Aquarium, after the Maryland Film Festival's screening of Jazz Man, a documentary on Murray's career. Both Reid and Murray encouraged Gilchrist to send them some music. He mailed off copies of Asphalt Revolt and got encouraging responses from both.

"David put the word out that he was looking for me," Gilchrist recalls. "So I went down to meet him in D.C. after a show. The first thing he said to me was, `That's a motherfucking bad CD you sent me.' We went out to get something to eat, jammed for three hours, ate again, and jammed for another four hours. I could feel an instant rapport, like the place he was already in was where I was going. As we were leaving, he looked at me intently and said, `Get a passport.'"

Gilchrist's first gig with Murray was at Iridium in Manhattan in April 2000. He was filling the piano chair in Murray's octet, formerly occupied D.D. Jackson, and soon he was on the plane to Europe. Meanwhile, Reid put Gilchrist in touch with Joel Dorn, producer for Horace Silver, Keith Jarrett, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, who now headed up the Hyena Records label. (Dorn's now-defunct 32Jazz label was also behind the release of vintage live tapes from Left Bank Jazz Society shows recorded at Baltimore's Famous Ballroom.) The folks at Hyena liked what they heard and signed Gilchrist to a contract.

Gilchrist now faced the decision that every Baltimore musician faces sooner or later: Should I stay or should I go? The conventional wisdom is that a musician has to leave Maryland for a music center such as New York or Los Angeles to find the record companies, managers, lawyers, and fellow players to take a career to the next level. The conventional wisdom is often correct, but not always.

"I doubt very seriously if I could have landed the contract with Joel or the gig with David if I'd gone to New York," Gilchrist says. "Because it was staying in Baltimore, building my own band and building my own sound, that got me where I am. I sat down with Joel and said, `I don't want to do a young-lion bebop record,' and Joel said, `That's good, because we don't want that shit anyway.' After David hired me, he started telling people, `I've got a motherfucker who doesn't sound like anyone else.' [Saxophonist] Hamiet Bluiett told me, `Yeah, that's why he got you, because the quartet sounds different with you in it.'"

Gilchrist decided to stay. Because the cost of living is so much cheaper here, he believed he could concentrate on his own music without having to take unwanted gigs to pay the rent. Because there's less competition for good players here, it's easier to hang onto them. And because trends seldom start here and usually arrive late and vitiated, there's less pressure to follow trends. The pianist knew, because he often took the train to New York to test the waters.

"When you go to New York and don't play like McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock," he says, "the horn players give you a dirty look, like they want you to lay out. It's like they're saying, `If you don't play like McCoy, I can't do my Trane shit,' or, `If you don't play like Herbie, I can't do my Wayne [Shorter] shit.' You can very easily succumb to that pressure, and that's why a lot of the players there sound alike. By staying in Baltimore, I can do something that sounds just like me. When you pull those chords from inside you, that's how the music really happens.

"It's been to my benefit to work out of the spotlight and not feel the pressure to do what everyone else is doing. It's like the freedom Prince had when he developed a whole new sound in Minneapolis. That freedom gave him the courage to try new things, the courage to be vulnerable, the courage to put his weird stuff out there and endure the slings and arrows, like Ornette [Coleman] or Cecil Taylor."

Gilchrist's contrarian decision to stay put paid off when he finally assembled an octet of extraordinary players. Erve Madden took over the bass chair from the late Vince Loving for the 2001 album Collagic Dreams but was soon replaced by Jenkins. The final two pieces were Gabriel Ware on alto sax and Greg Thompkins on tenor sax.

"That was the band I'd been waiting for," Gilchrist says. "In music sometimes you have to keep at it and keep at it until the right individuals show up. Andrew Hill once told me, `You have to wait for time to catch up to you and for the right individuals to come into your orbit.' When I added Gabe on alto, I finally had all the voices for the harmonies I was writing already. Suddenly the sound was huge."

When the New Volcanoes played Artscape 2005 in front of the Mount Royal Station clock tower, it was as if two different bands were sharing the stage. One band was a very funky piano trio that dug into the groove; the other resembled a gospel choir of horns. On Gilchrist composition "The Syndicate," for example, the trio punched out a down-and-dirty funk riff while the horns shouted out a "joyful noise" like a full-throated choir. As the song progressed, the boundaries between the two subgroups slowly crumbled, as Gilchrist played darting piano passages that laced the melody into the beat and as Dierker took a solo that descended into the low register of the rhythm section and pulled it into the harmonies.

"He does look at the horn section as a choir," Thompkins agrees. "But it's a choir where anyone can get the spirit and take off. Sometimes the rhythm section will drop out and the horns will just play the chords, choosing whatever note in each chord we want. In Lafayette's band you have a lot of choice in what you do--a lot. I can switch pitches each time I play the same section. That way we sound like we're together even though we're each doing what we want."

Gilchrist's first album for Hyena was 2004's The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist, a compilation of the best tracks from Asphalt Revolt and Collagic Dreams. His first album of new music for Hyena--and his first with the current New Volcanoes--was 2005's Towards the Shining Path. It was a terrific record, but it got limited exposure because Gilchrist couldn't afford to take the band on the road.

"I think I'm at my best when I have all my horns and we can dialogue with one another," Gilchrist says wistfully. "I want to share the glory with them because these cats have been willing to work with me for almost no money, and that's a big deal. But the economic reality is that it's difficult to book the octet at this point in my career. So the plan is to get out there with the trio and raise my visibility, so I can eventually tour with the octet."

Gilchrist finds himself caught in the age-old dilemma: He can't get bookings until he's better known, and he won't be better known until he gets more bookings. It's tough enough to book any up-and-coming jazz combo in today's harsh economic climate, but it's especially tough to book an up-and-coming octet. He figured he'd have a better shot with the smaller unit, but to take the trio on the road he needed a trio record. So he recorded his new album, Three, with just Jenkins and Reynolds.

"I sat down with the horn players and said, `Hang with me on this,'" Gilchrist explains. "`If we can draw some attention to the trio, eventually we'll be able to take the whole band on the road.'"

"I think the trio record is great," Thompkins says. "If you're going to be a professional musician, you have to have several things going. How many groups does David Murray have? Seven or eight? The best thing about the trio disc is he's getting press on it, and people are beginning to hear what Lafayette has been doing. That can only help us down the line."

Three is not just an economic move, however; it's also a document of how fast the pianist is growing. Because there's more room in the arrangements than ever before, there's more need for Gilchrist to solo. And because he needs strong themes to solo on, he's writing stronger melodies than before. "The Last Train," for example, is a lovely, melancholy ballad "inspired by a visit to the Baltimore office of the Urban League . . . built on one of the stops on the Underground Railroad." Gilchrist's piano solo twists the melody into new knots even as Jenkins and Reynolds are doing the same to the rhythm. The tension from one reinforces the tension in the other.

"I asked Mike Cerri once, `Why do people go nuts when we play "Syndicate"?'" Gilchrist says. "And he said, `Because they remember the melody.' I realized he was right, so melody is the main thing I'm concentrating on now. Instead of writing the chords first and the melody second, I'm writing the melody first, because it's easier to come up with interesting changes for a melody than it is to come up with an interesting melody for certain chords. And for a jazz tune to have personality it has to have a melody you can remember."

Freddie Dunn once told Gilchrist, "Yeah, you're the inside/outside cat." That nickname sparked the title for "Inside Outside," the final tune on the new album. When the trio played it at An die Musik in June, they began on the inside, working within the herky-jerky syncopation of the repeating rhythm figure. Before long, though, they were looking for a way out. Jenkins and Reynolds began shifting accents around, and Gilchrist began tackling the central two-bar motif with different voicings and in different keys. Soon he was outside the main theme, his fingers rippling across the keys in search of new melodic twists. He wasn't out for very long, though, before he dived back inside the pocket, feeding on that rhythmic energy and looking for a new way out.

"That's what creates the tension in the music," he exclaims, "when I'm constrained within a structure and I'm straining to break out. The contradiction, of course, is I need the structure so I can break it down. I want the grooves, but I don't want to be a prisoner of them. Sometimes I surrender to the current, sometimes I swim upstream. That's the crucial contradiction in American music right now. It's the main contradiction for the whole planet. Everyone loves freedom, but they also want running water and electricity, which requires a system, which requires restraint."

Perhaps that's why Gilchrist's music feels so essential at this moment in time. As the modern world negotiates the relationship between freedom and structure, improvisation and repetition, individuality and collaboration, this Baltimore pianist of small renown is providing a model of how all those elements can co-exist without any one of them being diminished in the process.

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