CD Reviews

LaFayette Gilchrist’s New Album Undaunted – Familiar but Fresh and New.

For fans of his groovy, rhythm-oriented jazz, Lafayette Gilchrist’s latest album Undaunted is a welcome addition to a growing catalog of great, diggable music by one of Baltimore’s most recognizable pianists. For non-fans, what’s the hold-up? Time to get on board!

The five compositions on this album are immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Gilchrist’s work, but they sound fresh and new, like the continued unfolding of an ongoing symphony. The songs, and Gilchrist’s piano playing, are based heavily on the groove — rhythmic piano motifs supported by the rest of the rhythm section, and with horns either accentuating the lines or at times sailing over them, buoyed by their constant motion.

The title track, for instance, opens the album with a shuffling, syncopated melody in the piano over the top of a smooth and steady descending line played fluently and confidently by acoustic bassist Herman Burney. It’s primarily a rhythmic figure, but with enough melodic development that you might think it is itself the song. After the initial statement though, the horns come in, along with the drums and percussion, playing a stripped down melody, derived from the first melody but more emphatically “the head” — something to hold on to. Seemingly simple, the motif meanders and modulates through the form until it arrives at the first solo section having outlined a clear three-part form, played twice to solidify it.

On reaching the first solo form, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles moves fluidly over the top of the groove now well established by the rest of the band, almost evoking more of a swing jazz sound superimposed on the funky shuffle. Trombonist Christian Hizon’s solo is a little more closely linked to the groove of the rhythm section, but certainly not constrained by it, and contains many great expressive ideas, encouraging the rhythm section to play a little with the beat. Gilchrist follows up with a single chorus of exceptional improvisation, and the band returns to the form but with an alternate melody reminiscent of a shout chorus in a big band. The full melody returns after a rhythm section breakdown with some tasty bass variations, then leads into another piano improvisation before returning for the final out head.

This type of development is typical of Gilchrist’s style, and is excellently represented across the album — melodies and forms that sound simple until you listen to the details; variations played throughout that evoke both big band and funk simultaneously; grooves that blend funk, Latin jazz, go-go, boogie-woogie, and more; melodies that sound at once familiar and fresh.

The second track, “Ride It Out,” shares many of the same elements but with a very different feel, much more in the style of a fusion-esque jazz with some Afro-Cuban rhythm sections thrown in. There’s a great rhythmic dropout at the beginning of the sax solo, an excellent example of drummer Eric Kennedy’s unfailingly sensitive skills as not only a player but a listener, and perfectly coordinated with percussionist Kevin Pinder. Gilchrist’s solo in this song reminds me a lot of Hampton Hawes on his great duet with Charlie Hayden, sort of a complex new age meditation, but here supported by the drums and percussion and extremely satisfying for it.

Track three, “Into the Swirl,” features a riveting ostinato figure shared by the bass and piano’s left hand which push the tune almost off the rails, but never quite too far. Burney’s bass solo in “southern belle” is extremely tasteful and highlights his excellent melodic sense, and Pinder’s syncopated interplay with the main tango groove carries this song forward beautifully.

The final track, “Metropolitan Musings, ” conjures up memories of some of the Mancini scores of the 60s and 70s, with equal parts of mystery and a sly hipness that sounds like a nod to a bygone style, but again, with a modern, fresh sound to it–much, I must say, like Gilchrist’s notable fashion sense — hip and reminiscent of the 60s, but also uniquely personal and suited to his modern sound.

The album is beautifully recorded and mixed by Ben Frock, with every instrument clear but the band blending smoothly and Gilchrist’s piano taking a strong front seat. Overall, it’s a very listenable record that so far has appealed to everyone I’ve played it for, and on each listen I keep finding new things about it to enjoy. Kudos to Lafayette and his whole band for a great recording that will definitely stay in my playlist for a long time to come.

— by Ian Rashkin

Ian Rashkin is a bass player and composer who served several years as president of the Baltimore jazz Alliance before moving to California; he still remains active with the BJA and contributes articles from time to time.

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