Iconoclastic pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist exudes his unconquerable spirit on his new album Undaunted, out via digital, CD and limited edition vinyl on November 3, 2023 via Morphius Records.
“New Orleans barrelhouse piano, the Impressionism of Ravel, and Duke Ellington’s jaggy solo-piano sound form the bedrock of Lafayette Gilchrist’s style at the keyboard. But if there’s one big influence on the way he thinks about rhythm, it’s the deeply swinging ‘pocket’ of a classic go-go beat. With its classic loping groove, built on heavy hand percussion and call-and-response flow, go-go is the unofficial musical idiom of Gilchrist’s native Washington, D.C.” – Giovanni Russonello, The New York Times
Lafayette Gilchrist’s indomitable spirit energizes his newest album, Undaunted. The world-renowned pianist and composer leads a sextet through five riveting compositions that exemplify why he’s one of the most iconoclastic jazz musicians of his generation.
For the new album, Gilchrist retains drummer Eric Kennedy and bassist Herman Burney, who accompanied him on his 2020 double album/CD, Now, while adding tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, trombonist Christian Hizon, and percussionist Kevin Pinder. The result is a meatier, grittier sound articulating Gilchrist’s brooding, often urban gothic take on modern jazz that subtly coalesces barrelhouse blues, stride piano, post hard-bop, hip-hop, go-go, and R&B elements. The album kicks off with the evocative title track featuring Gilchrist embroidering a dance-like melody on top of Burney’s skulking bass line. That gives way to the horn passages, which enliven the composition with laid-back melodic sway.
Gilchrist explains that the 16-bar structured “Undaunted” developed from a fanciful riff he was toying with; he later crafted a musical narrative within it by extending its harmonic framework. His friend, George “Doc” Manning – a podcaster and former radio host on Morgan University Radio/WEAA 88.9 FM – suggested the composition’s name.
“I played it for him over the phone and I asked him, ‘What’s the title of this?’ He said, ‘Undaunted’,” Gilchrist recalls. “George assessed the unspoken meaning in the music in the same way that I did. The title touches upon what one originally started pursuing early in life and later they’re still on that path no matter what life throws at them.” Gilchrist clarifies that it’s not so much about a reflection on his own noteworthy career that began making international attention at the turn of the 21st century; it’s more about how he believes his music should sound and feel.
The album continues with the suspenseful “Ride It Out,” an episodic composition marked by an infectious yet probing melody, torrential horn solos, and startling breaks. Gilchrist describes it as a “sonic portrait of a fever,” specifically the one many obtained after catching the deadly Covid-19 virus during the pandemic. “The breaks in the song represent the fever breaking. Even when fevers break, there remain residuals from the sickness,” says Gilchrist before explaining one of the reasons the song ends on the turnaround instead of the tonic.
It’s a composition device Gilchrist adopted from studying Duke Ellington. “Oftentimes, Duke would not end his songs on the tonic; he sometimes would leave you hanging on the five,” Gilchrist says. “It conveyed that feeling of yet something else is becoming. Clark Terry often said that Duke Ellington always wanted his music to be in the state of becoming.” The tonal centerpiece for the album in terms of key center and chord changes for Undaunted occurs on “Into The Swirl,” an evocative masterpiece that begins with Gilchrist hammering a circular ostinato figure which gains more propulsion and gravity once Burney joins in unison. Kennedy’s sleek rhythm adds velocity as Settles and Hizon blow a languid melody that sounds as if they’re trying to catch a fast-moving carousel.
After Gilchrist wrote the tornado-like rhythm for “Into the Swirl,” he says that he felt like he was outside of the rhythm, observing its centripetal allure. “I had this rhythmic idea that sounded like things moving by at a fast pace. And to touch it is to be sucked into it,” he says. “So, the song is about being in that decisive moment of whether to touch it or not.” The album’s mood lightens on the swaggering “Southern Belle,” on which Gilchrist and the frontline horns unravel writhing passages brimming with sensuality and seduction. Gilchrist says that the composition is a tone-poem for a dear friend who hails from Italy. “She has a rhythm to her and a certain way of putting herself together. It’s like nothing can tell her that she’s not the finest thing on two legs,” Gilchrist says of the muse of the song. “Even though she’s from Italy, she reminds me of a southern belle.”
Undaunted concludes with the stammering “Metropolitan Musings (Them Streets Again),” an Afro-Latin tinged tribute to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Even though those mid-Atlantic hubs are considered twin cities, they can appear vastly different with their own unique inner rivalry. In terms of the polyrhythmic elements Pinder supplies with his restless hand percussion, the song makes oblique references to Washington, D.C.’s signature go-go sound and Baltimore’s renowned deep house scene.
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Even though Gilchrist was born in Washington, D.C. on August 3, 1967, it was in Baltimore that he learned to play music. At 17, his interest in the piano sparked when he was a University of Maryland, Baltimore student focusing on economics. While on his way to English class, during his freshman year, he wandered into a recital hall and began tinkering around on a Steinway piano.
Afterward, he spent many hours teaching himself piano and auditing music theory classes. By the time he graduated, he had started his career as a pianist and composer. He formed his first ensemble, New Volcanoes, thirty years ago and released his debut album, The Art Is Life, that same year. He’s since released 14 other albums as a leader. In addition to the critically acclaimed TV crime drama, The Wire, his music has been featured on HBO’s Treme and The Deuce.
“Gilchrist’s writing weaves together old-school funk rhythms with hip-hop cadences and raw street beats,” says Troy Collins in All About Jazz. “His melodic sensibility embraces the esoteric angularity of Andrew Hill and Sun Ra as much as the emotional directness of the blues.”
In addition to his work as a leader, Gilchrist has also performed as a sideman with many jazz luminaries including saxophonist David Murray, singer Cassandra Wilson, trombonist Craig Harris, bassist William Parker and drummer Andrew Cyrille.