Jazz messenger

Lafayette Gilchrist, Baltimore's promising young poet of the piano

Seeking Higher Sound

For jazz pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, his music is his message -- and is making him a player of note.


The clamorous noonday crowd washes cacophonies of noise across the Lexington Market like chattering waves breaking on a rocky shore at high tide.

Amid this uproar, on a bit of a stage at the end of the historic market's food court, jazz pianist Lafayette Gilchrist takes his solo unperturbed. Totally inside his music, he could be in an empty rehearsal hall.

Somewhat incongruously, the tune is Softly, As in the Morning Sunlight. But Gilchrist is not playing it with the elegant delicacy of the classic John Lewis Modern Jazz Quartet version of this old love song. Instead, he propels the music with a percussive force that floats it out over the exuberant crowd as serenely as a hovering seabird.

"The rowdiness ... doesn't bother me," Gilchrist, perhaps Baltimore's finest young jazz pianist, says after the mid-day gig. "It doesn't bother me, if I know the music is penetrating

through that. I thought what we were doing was strong enough to command people's attention. And it did.

"It's almost like public poetry," he says. "The poet stands up in the middle of an atmosphere where there's all kinds of activity going on and he's espousing poetry. That's the feeling I got of what we were doing. ... In a setting like that, it's public art."

Gilchrist, 32, has been playing and writing music since even before his graduation from UMBC in 1992, and developing a national and even international reputation. He's even been reviewed in Polish in the city of Wroclaw, where he played with David Murray, the great tenor sax player. He leads his own band, the New Volcanoes, here in Baltimore.

At Lexington Market, he's a sideman in a band led by Craig Alston, a fine tenor player, with Freddie Dunn on trumpet, Eric Kennedy on drums and Jeff Reed on bass -- all first-class musicians he's proud to play with.

Dunn's an old friend and a regular with the New Volcanoes. He plays a killer solo on Assume the Position, the first tune on Gilchrist's first CD for Hyena Records, The World According to Lafayette Gilchrist, released last year.

The CD has been widely praised. Web site All About Jazz described it as "loud, powerful and uncompromising music, swelling at the seams with bursting, syncopated horns, but contained by a steady funk bottom." Critic Geoffrey Himes of The Washington Post picked the CD as one of the 10 best of 2004 -- "a breakout project that should transform Gilchrist from local hero and perennial sideman into a major jazz figure."

'Unofficial music major'

Not bad for a guy who never had sat down at a piano until he was 17.

That was 15 years ago. He was going to summer school before starting his freshman year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"I tell people this, but I don't think anybody believes me," he says. "I went into recital hall at UMBC, just wandering around the Fine Arts Building. There was a nine-foot Steinway grand piano sitting up on the stage. It seemed to be sitting there for me. It seemed to be almost saying, 'This is something you can do. Come on, check me out.'

"I walked up. I sat down at the piano, I hit the sustain pedal, and I pretended I was really playing something. Fortunately for me, the very first thing I played, I remember it sounded great to me. I never lost that thing. I never lost the feeling of that first moment. I just went wow!

"It was like it touched something in me, deep," he says. "I think in that moment music found me."

An economics major then, he nonetheless began hanging out in the Fine Arts Building, spending "every spare moment" in the piano rooms. "I ended up practicing six to eight hours a day," he recalls. "I would get books. I got one of those self-starter music books. I started to sketch out my ideas. It was pretty horrible at first."

He brought his pieces to Freddie Dunn, now his New Volcanoes colleague but then a music major a couple years ahead of him at UMBC. Dunn, he says, "was very patient with me," read the music and made suggestions.

"Slowly I began to get it," Gilchrist says. "I got to be such a regular fixture that they gave up throwing me out of the piano rooms. I was the 'unofficial music major.' "

He made a tape and played it for his folks. They were impressed, but dismayed.

"My mother had one of those looks like, 'Oh god, I hope he's not thinking of majoring in music.' They wanted me to be a bourgeoisie in good standing."

His mother, Janice Taylor Murdock, has just retired from the Federal Aviation Administration. She and his stepfather, who worked for NASA, are now divorced.

But Gilchrist kept up with his music even as he continued his formal education. He graduated in 1992 with a major in African American studies.

"Everybody was satisfied," he says.

His big break

He'd been playing with the Volcanoes and doing solo gigs up and down the East Coast for about 10 years when he got what has been his biggest break: the opportunity to play with modern jazz legend David Murray's octet.

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