Learning from the masters: Lafayette Gilchrist

Boston Globe, August 29, 2008

Jazz is saturated with hot talent fresh out of music schools. That’s not a bad problem to have – it certainly proves to any doubters the music’s continued appeal – but it makes it especially refreshing when a distinctive new presence on the scene belongs to a true autodidact. Characters who learned on the fly, came in on a tangent from other musical scenes, or simply didn’t have access to expensive educations are central to the history of the music. Today, they remind us of its roots and its soul.

Enter the pianist Lafayette Gilchrist. In the late 1980s Gilchrist was just another black middle-class teenager and hip-hop head from northeast Washington, D.C., getting ready to major in economics and become an accountant, as per his family’s wishes, when a chance encounter with a 9-foot Steinway propelled him onto a different path.

Today, Gilchrist is a core member of saxophonist David Murray’s Black Saint Quartet, one of the most incandescently adventurous units out there. He’s also a band leader who has perfected a trademark loping funk, in which gutty blues energy rumbles beneath quizzical, complex phrases. It’s a powerful and idiosyncratic sound, whether distilled by Gilchrist’s long-running New Volcanoes octet – whose third album, “Soul Progressin’,” is brand new – or in the trio format that he brings to Regattabar on Wednesday.

Contributing to Gilchrist’s originality is his longstanding choice, despite having hit the big time with Murray’s band, to stay based in Baltimore, an unlikely jazz milieu but the place he’s called home ever since attending the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. That’s where he first touched that Steinway.

“I was 17 and in summer school because I needed to take an English class in order to enroll,” he recalls in a recent phone conversation from his home. “It happened to be in the fine arts building, and they made the mistake of leaving me alone in the recital hall. I fell in love with the sound of the instrument, and that thrill has never left me.”

Soon after, he and a pal happened to watch an interview with Wynton Marsalis: “Wynton kept mentioning this cat Thelonious Monk. And we thought, that’s a hell of a name!” On the name alone, they located a Monk cassette and listened to it over and over. It was the start of Gilchrist’s forging of his own piano identity – one clearly marked by the melding of percussiveness and angularity that Monk pioneered.

“From that day on I was in those practice rooms every day,” Gilchrist says. He hurriedly learned to read and write music, but most of all he sat at the piano trying to render what he heard in his mind.

“In retrospect I know now that I was composing,” he says. “I never did practice scales. I was trying to play what I heard and finding new things along the way. Inevitably, if you come at music from that process you eventually start to settle into forms.”

In Gilchrist’s case, those forms bear the imprint of a pantheon of progressive, rhythmically oriented pianists from Monk to Randy Weston, Andrew Hill, and even Cecil Taylor, whose high degree of abstraction befuddled him at first. “I began to think of the instrument as 88 timbred drums, and then I understood,” he says.

But you also feel in Gilchrist’s music his steeping in hip-hop and especially go-go, the regional dance music of Washington, D.C., with its live instrumentation and extra-funky horn charts. He also credits Baltimore’s aggressive house music as an influence and, later, exposure to jazz-funk polymaths like the guitarist Vernon Reid.

Gilchrist connected with Murray back in 1999, when Murray came through town for a solo bass clarinet performance. The next year, Gilchrist joined Murray’s band: “I was a completely unknown rookie piano player,” he says, recalling their first gig at the Iridium club in New York. “I just closed my eyes and took the shot.”

Today Gilchrist’s seat in Murray’s band, where his predecessors include late luminaries Don Pullen and John Hicks, is secure. But he’s just as invested in his own band, a quintessentially local outfit full of Baltimore cats whom he picked up along the way. In another Baltimore angle, one of Gilchrist’s tracks, “Assume the Position,” even appears in the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire” and on the companion CD.

His perch in the provinces seems to suit Gilchrist’s temperament. It also makes for a less stressful and less expensive life than if he were in New York. And in a way, the relative remove helps keep him disciplined and hungry.

“You can have your sound and be off on an island somewhere,” he says. “I’ve always tried to be aware of the standard. There’s no excuse not to learn everything there is to learn about composition.”