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Not the Sound, But the Spirit of Jazz

Lafayette Gilchrist performs in Studio 4A.
Coburn Dukehart, NPR /
/
Lafayette Gilchrist performs in Studio 4A.

The standard canon for up-and-coming jazz pianists has traditionally included Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and maybe some early Herbie Hancock. But Lafayette Gilchrist did not start playing the piano until college after a childhood listening to much more funk, hip hop and go-go than jazz.

Gilchrist's new album, 3, on Hyena Records is a product of his upbringing: beat-driven compositions with special attention to improvisation. He follows a similar line of other jazz pianists' hip-hop experiments like Matthew Shipp and Jason Moran, but loses the drum machine and instead focuses on the percussive aspects of hip hop.

Gilchrist grew up in Washington, D.C., and his aunt lived down the street from the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown. He would listen to Brown rehearse in his house and sneaked into go-go clubs like Club U. The music instilled a rhythm in Gilchrist, one that recognized "A Train" first as a go-go track by Brown and not as a jazz standard.

In the summer of 1986, Gilchrist, then 18, was attending a remedial English class at UMBC's Fine Arts Building and stumbled into the recital hall. A nine-foot Steinway piano sat on the stage and he began to play. He liked what he heard despite never having played the piano in his life.

Encouraged by friends and eventually by established jazz musicians like David Murray and Andrew Hill, Gilchrist has been refining his craft for 22 years. He has played in ensembles with David Murray, but has also done session work for the Basement Boys, the Baltimore-based house music trio.

Gilchrist has released albums in various configurations, but most effectively with his octet on The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist produced by Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid. On tour, Gilchrist takes one of those tunes originally written for octet, "Assume the Position," and transposes it for his trio comprised of Anthony "Blue" Jenkins on electric bass and Nate Reynolds on drums.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Roberts
Award-winning public radio reporter and host Rebecca Roberts is currently a substitute host for NPR News programs including Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and Weekend Edition Sunday. Roberts returned to her hometown of Washington, DC, in 2006 to host WETA-FM's The Intersection, a news talk show which had her leading discussions on social, political, economic and cultural trends affecting the Greater Washington area. (The Intersection ended when WETA returned to a classical music format in early 2007.) Before returning to Washington, Roberts hosted Your Call on KALW-FM in San Francisco, a local call-in show covering politics and culture.