The Baltimore-based, D.C.-born pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist leads a sextet through five of his compositions on Undaunted that course through a potpourri of styles from, barrelhouse blues, stride, post hard bop, hip-hop, R&B, and his foundational go-go, the musical style of Washington D.C. His angular style makes him a descendant of Monk but his connection both to the blues and more abstract forms evokes pianists such as Andrew Hill and even Sun Ra. Yet, there is an infectious, contemporary quality to Gilchrist’s music that will make you smile and maybe even dance. Gilchrist returns with his trio mates from his 2020 double album Now. They are drummer Eric Kennedy and bassist Herman Burney. He adds frontliners – tenor saxophonist Brian Settles and trombonist Christian Hizon while percussionist Kevin Pinder keeps the rhythms percolating.
The swaying, danceable title track leads off, underpinned by Burney’s sturdy bass line. The horns flesh it out as the full sextet locks in with the infectious blend of trombone and tenor. The practically 12-minute “Ride It Out” follows, depicting the sonic portrait of a fever, maybe even a long bout with Covid. As such, there are several sections and a few surprises along the way. Gilchrist establishes a catchy groove, the horns blow in unison, accenting three chords before Settles builds an intense, ferocious solo over a slowed rhythm and hands the baton to the trombonist for an equally aggressive turn. The breaks are indeed to connote the fever breaking. Gilchrist solos freely in the middle section, inviting the percussionists in as the tempo slows to a virtual crawl, punctuated with piano chords, rim shots, cymbal crashes, and rumbling congas. The horns reprise the theme, but the song ends not with a tonic but a turnaround, a compositional device Gilchrist borrowed from Ellington. My grandmother used to say “take a shot of bourbon and you’ll feel better” but this may even be a better cure for any kind of fever.
The tonal centerpiece for the album is “In the Swirl” which begins with Gilchrist creating a circular ostinato figure that gains tsunami-like momentum when the bassist joins, soon becoming a unrelenting locomotive as Kennedy and Pinder stoke the fire and the two horns are like passengers trying to find calm amidst the bustle and rigor of Gilchrist’s left hand, which they actually do in the final section. “Southern Belle” is lighter, a tune written for a lady from Italy that reminds Gilchrist of a southern belle. The horns, and especially Hizon are fiercely melodic here as if in awe of this lady’s beauty. Even Gilchrist’s solo departs somewhat from his jagged, percussive style into a smooth glide in places.
The final track, “Metropolitan Musings (Them Streets Again)” is a feature for percussionist Pinder who delivers a Latin underpinning with his hand percussion. The song makes oblique reference to D.C.’s signature go-go sound and Baltimore’s deep house scene via Gilchrist’s customary trio as the horns don’t enter until the final minute.
Even though we haven’t covered Gilchrist on these pages previously, you’ve likely heard him before. This is his fifteenth album as a leader, and he has performed with David Murray, Cassandra Wilson, William Parker, and Andrew Cyrille to name a few. More pertinently, you’ve likely heard his music on the HBO series, The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce. This blistering tour-de-force should earn him even more attention.
- Jim Hynes
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