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By John Frederick Moore
Lafayette Gilchrist pares down his ensemble, but not his commitment to powerful grooves and sophisticated harmonies.
Before 2020, Lafayette Gilchrist’s focus was on his band the New Volcanoes, a nine-piece unit that took a deep dive into the melding of jazz and go-go music, the deeply funky, hard-swinging sound that originated in Gilchrist’s hometown of Washington, D.C. But the pandemic forced the pianist to pare things down to a sextet for his latest album, Undaunted (Morphius).
“I thought it would be interesting to form an ensemble not with my usual three to five horns, but I figured I’d trim it down,” to a two-man section of saxophone and trombone, Gilchrist says by phone from his home in Baltimore. “I wanted to see what I could do with a with a smaller ensemble.”
Across five energetic, arresting tracks, Gilchrist blends the rhythms of go-go (the title track), Guillermo Klein-redolent Latin jazz (“Southern Belle”) and hard bop (“Metropolitan Musings — Them Streets Again”) on top of sophisticated harmonies. Each piece is distinct, yet the album maintains a sense of cohesion, which the 56-year-old Gilchrist attributes to his growth as a composer.
“The writing is better. It’s a little more mature, a little more refined,” he says. “But I haven’t deterred any from my vision. I don’t think the music has lost any fire. It’s just that I wanted to funnel it through a rhythmically and harmonically more elastic kind of setting.”
That malleability comes second nature to Gilchrist. Go-go is encoded in his musical DNA. But, he explains, jazz is just as embedded in go-go music. “Chuck Brown would play jazz themes over the go-go beat, stuff like ‘Harlem Nocturne,’ ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing — If It Don’t Have the Go-Go Swing.’ So, I got exposure in terms of how I thought about music, period, because you could put anything and integrate it with that beat and make it stick.”
Even with a smaller lineup, Gilchrist and company produce a sound that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. “When the level of musicianship is as high as it is on this record, you can do a lot. Everybody has their own voice. [Drummer] Eric Kennedy has really interesting beats within beats, as I call them. He plays drums like a piano player. It’s almost like having an extra keyboard there.”
One of Gilchrist’s signatures as a pianist is building a rhythmic foundation from his strong left hand, as on the ostinato-fueled “Into the Swirl.” That’s easily traced to some of the great masters of the instrument — Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Mary Lou Williams — but also to a couple of early mentors.
"It’s a conscious effort to play the full instrument,” he says. “When I played with [saxophonist] David Murray, he’d want to hear the full piano. In a lot of the straightahead school, they play the mid-to-upper register of the piano primarily and leave the lower part to the bass. But I’ve never heard music like that. A lot of my stuff is driven from the bottom up.”
There’s also an admonition he received from his grandmother when he first played for her as a child: “One of the first things she said to me was, ‘Boy, you ain’t got no left hand at all!’”
Gilchrist has often addressed topical themes in his music, most notably on “Blues for Freddie Gray” from 2017’s New Urban World Blues. While none of the tracks on the new album is overtly political, for Gilchrist, making music is itself a radical act. “Just the title, Undaunted, has to do with my attitude with regard to pursuing a life in art and music,” he says. “These have been really, really scary times for the arts. Everything is just pointing to a diminishing of civilization, like a descent into a kind of barbarism.”
In the face of what he sees as some of our culture’s greatest ills — violence, oppression and isolation — Gilchrist sees the value in pushing on. “I still come to the market with my wares to sell, with my something to say. I committed to this thing; I’m 10 toes deep in it. But that’s the arts — it’s a leap of faith. I guess what this record is saying is my faith in the power of what music can do is unshaken.”