Lafayette Gilchrist

Lafayette Gilchrist’s New-School Old-School Piano

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 01.29.14 in Spotlights

Lafayette Gilchrist is by no means the only modern jazz pianist who folds funk into his playing, but nobody else’s mix sounds quite like his. He takes something a little old school — a distinctive ’70s/’80s regional beat — and combines it with stuff that’s even more old-school, and makes it all sound up to the minute.

Gilchrist’s new solo piano album The View from Here is a stunner, not least for old-timey touches, like shuddering right-hand tremolos and left-hand bass rhythms that come on like a freight train. He makes the box ring like the two-fisted pioneers of stride and boogie-woogie in the 1920s. But in place of bluesy bass runs or stride piano’s hopscotch between low notes and mid-keyboard chords, Gilchrist’s left hand may sound one variation or another of a very particular rhythm, a three-note syncopation answered by a contraction of same: boom-paaah-boom, boom-pa-b’m. It’s the beat that fueled vintage Washington go-go bands like Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.

That’s the music Gilchrist grew up on in the early ’80s, in and around Washington, D.C. He echoes that danceable funk the way stride pianists extrapolated from the ragtime they heard coming up, or Chicago boogie pianists grabbed polyrhythms from the clacketing of freight trains rolling through the neighborhood. He puts in his own lived experience, much the way Washingtonian Duke Ellington would base character sketches on people he observed.

“Go-go swings — it’s one of the swingingest forms of funk,” Gilchrist says over pizza down the street from his home base, Baltimore’s Windup Space, where he performs often in various combinations. “I never played go-go per se, but it was in the air all through my youth in the Washington area. In the school lunchroom, we’d start a go-go beat with forks and pots. At the drum kit, it’s the only beat I can really play.”

Go-go was also in the neighborhood in the literal sense. “Chuck Brown lived down the street from my aunt, and I heard him rehearse some. They’d play their own stuff, but also old jazz numbers like ‘Harlem Nocturne,’ ‘Take the “A” Train’ and ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Go-Go Swing.’ When I finally heard Earl Bostic’s ‘Harlem Nocturne’ I thought he was playing it wrong ’cause it didn’t have that go-go beat. That was all they played.”

Washington roots are deep in his music. “DC Slick,” one of two pieces on the solo album that comprise Gilchrist’s “Go-Go Suite,” is based on his impressions of the town, its people and complexities, as he was becoming aware of the world. Those memories get his creative juices flowing.

“Go-go in the left hand, that’s my m.o.: Do whatever. Stride and boogie-woogie, they’re almost generic now. There are books to teach you how to play those styles, or how to play like Eddie Palmieri. My idea is to use old forms to create a contemporary feeling in a seamless way — not to evoke Harlem or Chicago’s South Side. If it reminds you of something, that’s fine, but it has to reflect our own age. So much of hip-hop culture is defined by the heavy fatback thing; why can’t I express that in the left hand?”

You can smell the skillet sputter on a swaggering “Wide Berth” and the go-going Gilchrist standard “Assume the Position.” (There’s a band version on the soundtrack to The Wire.) But he’s no one-trick wizard; he keeps that left-hand action going his own ways too, setting up a killer pattern and then disrupting it just long enough to make you worry.

Gilchrist has spent the last 30 years mulling the keyboard, after a late start. He was taking pre-college summer classes at the University of Maryland Baltimore County just before his 18th birthday when he impulsively sat down at an unattended grand piano (It was under a spotlight, beckoning.) An hour later a friend came by and said, “I didn’t know you could play.”

He spent much of his first semester camped out in practice rooms, indulging his new passion. “I learned by just noodling, all by ear, intentionally going into my own imagination and thinking, ‘Could this really be music?’ I didn’t even know what improvising meant. Dr. Stuart Smith, the new music composer at UMBC, had to tell me: ‘You’re improvising.’

“When I told my mom I wanted to become a musician, her second husband asked his father to talk sense into me. Instead, we became close, because I was interested in his Duke Ellington records. Mr. Boyd was a mainstream WWII-vet respect-the-flag dude, and that generation of black men would talk about Ellington the way the old boxers would talk about Sugar Ray Robinson. And he’d say, ‘Monk was good too.’”

It was all he needed to hear. Lafayette’s imagination had gotten him started on piano, but had only carried him so far — halfway, in a sense. “My grandma didn’t know any jazz history, but she knew jazz as popular music. Her first comment about my playing was, ‘You’ve got no left hand.’”

So he started catching up on the old southpaw masters. “I was always curious about where musicians got something from. My first Art Tatum cassette, I thought it had been recorded at the wrong speed, cause no one’s that fast. So I bought a second copy — same problem!”

The musicians Gilchrist played with at UMBC formed the nucleus of his small band, which gradually became his New Volcanoes, a four-horn jazz funk nonet he’s been leading in some form since the mid ’90s; he gravitated to Baltimore because that’s where his players were.

Bass clarinetist and tenor saxist John Dierker, gyrating improviser and one of the city’s secret weapons, was there from the beginning. Gilchrist says of all his college chums, Dierker was the most patient with his questions. And that when he audited Dr. Smith’s composition class, Dierker was assigned to make sure Gilchrist accurately notated his pieces.

“That’s what he says, but I honestly don’t remember,” Dierker laughs. “I was too busy trying to be Mr. Avant-Garde on Campus. My interest in his music didn’t really develop until I started playing it, a little later. The go-go stuff was there from the beginning — maybe even more than now. I have to watch what I say — in an old interview I called his music ‘sophisticated funk,’ and he’s still throwing that back at me. Whatever I may have done for him, his impact on me as a player or person has been much greater than mine on him.”

New Volcanoes’ early development is charted on a trio of Hyena CDs, culminating in 2008′s crisp Soul Progressin’. The band represented Baltimore on a Wire vs. Treme band-battle benefit in New Orleans in 2012, and Progressin’ foreshadowed how their syncopated saxofunk could hold its own — even at the legendary New Orleands venue Tipitina’s, where the competition took place. The band’s last release, It Came from Baltimore, documents two 2011 sets live at the Windup, where they can just about blow you out the door.

These days, Gilchrist leads an occasional trio with Balto heavies Michael Formanek on bass and Eric Kennedy on drums; they’ve often backed visiting soloists at the Windup. On last year’s InsideOut they all take breezy liberties with the pianist’s material. “I wanted to try for a more elastic rhythm there, to see if the music works with a more expanded sense of time, working with people who can break it up in the middle and still hold it all together.”

There is some power polyfunk, notably on “Spontaneous Combustion,” where Formanek and Kennedy link up all kinds of ways, and loose jaunty swing, and more hints of Lafayette’s mighty keyboard forebears.

All that said, for Gilchrist in trio mode, this listener is partial to 2007′s 3 with Volcanoes’ Anthony “Blue” Jenkins on greasy bass guitar and Nate Reynolds in the pocket on drums. It’s less subtle by a long shot. But Gilchrist thrives on that fatback beat.