Lafayette Gilchrist needed some quarters for a parking meter in Baltimore, because all he had in his pocket were pesos. He had just returned from Puebla, Mexico, where he had played piano for his longtime employer, saxophonist David Murray, and Murray’s new collaborator, singer Macy Gray.
Returning from feeding the meter, the jazz pianist sat down last month to talk about the three albums he’s releasing this year. He celebrated the first, a piano-trio project called “InsideOut,” at the Twins Jazz Lounge in Washington at the end of May. The second, coming out this fall, will feature his recently composed “The Go-Go Suite,” a jazz tribute to Chuck Brown and the music that Gilchrist loved as a kid growing up in the District. In October he will be releasing his first solo piano album.
Though he frequently jets to Europe or Latin America with Murray, Gilchrist, 45, remains anchored in Washington and Baltimore, the cities of his childhood and adulthood, respectively. He long resisted the pressure young jazz musicians face to move to New York, because he believes that staying here has allowed him to avoid Manhattan’s herd mentality and retain a distinctive sound.
In May he wore a tuft of hair beneath his lower lip and an olive-green porkpie hat with a red feather tilted back on his head as he explained how his two home towns had inspired his new recordings. InsideOut, the name of the trio as well as the album, allows the pianist to stretch out in a modern-jazz direction in the vein of his heroes Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill. The Baltimore musicians Mike Formanek (an acoustic bassist with two albums on ECM Records) and Eric Kennedy (a drummer for famed saxophonist Bobby Watson as well) provide the rhythmic elasticity Gilchrist is looking for.
“Eric reads me, so I know I can have a sonic adventure and still feel secure. That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not; I know I can take risks because I know he will respond to whatever I come up with,” Gilchrist said. “The same with Mike. Some musicians hear what you’re doing and lock into one thing, but these guys hear what I’m doing and come back with several things.”
Gilchrist recorded “The Go-Go Suite” with his other Baltimore-based band, the New Volcanoes, who will perform with the keyboardist Saturday. This nonet, featuring electric bass, electric guitar, drums, congas and four horns, is rarely heard outside Baltimore because it’s so costly to transport. But the remarkable combination of a horn choir with a funky but improvising rhythm section is perfect for bridging the gap between jazz and today’s popular music, especially Washington’s go-go.
“As a kid in D.C.,” Gilchrist recalled, “go-go was in every nook and cranny of the town. Every kid in school could bang out a go-go beat. . . . When I first heard rap and hip-hop, it didn’t seem out of line with what I already knew. But while hip-hop was made with vocals and machines, go-go was all about the playing; the vocals were incidental, like shout-outs at a party.
“Chuck Brown would come on stage in a big old Jheri curl, and the whole place would be rocking. He would be slipping in all these jazz quotes, but we didn’t know what he was doing; we just knew it sounded good on that beat. It was only later, when I realized how he would add extra measures to the bridge, that I understood that you could mess with musical forms.”
There are echoes of Brown’s music in the rhythmic and melodic motifs that Gilchrist employs as building blocks in “The Go-Go Suite.” But these motifs are always pulled and twisted by the nine musicians until they change into something else.
“When I’m writing,” he said, “I always build from small things to big things, from settlements to villages to cities; I never start with the whole city. . . . That’s what we’re all about: breaking the music up in the middle and then re-gathering the pieces,” he said. “Not a lot of jazz musicians think that way, but for some reason, Baltimore produces a lot of them.”
You can also hear the echoes of Brown in the strong, left-hand piano figures that Gilchrist uses to introduce several numbers on “InsideOut.” He does something alchemical when he links those go-go riffs to the 1930s Harlem stride piano tradition of James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, and to their heir, Thelonious Monk. There’s something about the percussive but rubbery sound of Gilchrist’s left hand, especially on his very Monk-like composition, “The Naif,” which distills the flexible approach to swing that links Johnson to Gilchrist through Monk and Brown.
“All this music swings,” Gilchrist said. “It’s all about a dance of some kind. Swing doesn’t necessarily mean dotted notes and a repeating one-two-three-four. It means an urgency, a drive, an elasticity that all these musicians had.”
Gilchrist has it, too.
Himes is a freelance writer.
Appearing Saturday at the Maryland Traditions Festival at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., Baltimore.
410-276-1651. www.creativealliance.org. The festival runs from
11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Lafayette Gilchrist & the New Volcanoes go on about 5 p.m. Free.
For a sampling of Lafayette Gilchrist’s music, check out:
From “It Came From Baltimore: Live at the Windup Space Vol. 1”:
“Duped Again, Mr. Jinx”