The darkly lit, basement club Bohemian Caverns just might be the perfect venue for Baltimore raised pianist Lafayette Gilchrist. Both the club's owner and pianist draw on the past glories of Baltimore and Washington's jazz scene, and neither feels any compunction about presenting that history in a totally modernized context. For the club, this means Belgian beer, a mixed menu of classic American fare and Persian cuisine, a music line-up that includes jazz, funk, hip-hop and electronica, and a decor boasting both portraits of jazz legends and a cave-themed interior replete with faux stone textured walls.
For Gilchrist, this means a return to the city-steeped textures of jazz's past, a time when each city had its own style and local voices soared. Gilchrist's music, however, is anything but retro. Like modern day film noir, Gilchrist evokes a brooding, darkly contoured feel, but encases his compositions in wholly modern rhythms. It is this blend of sumptuous richness, depth, and hard-hitting modernity that makes an evening of Gilchrist's music so exceptional. That, and his total originality.
Appropriately acknowledging Bohemian Cavern's place in history as one of Duke Ellington's first haunts, the Gilchrist septet opened with a rollicking original piece titled "Snake Hips, Shake Hips" written in subtle reference to Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, a dancer whose contortionist dance step was featured in Duke Ellington's "Symphony in Black".
After warming up the crowd with this horn-driven homage, Gilchrist turned next to "No Locomotion Blues", a loose, funky blues featuring Mike Cerri on trumpet. Revealing a penchant for unusual collisions, "No Locomotion Blues" sounds like a cross-breed of James Brown and King Oliver, especially with Cerri adding an adeptly handled plunger-mute solo to the mix.
After faltering slightly on the night's third, slightly disjointed piece, Gilchrist and crew quite literally fell back into the groove, finishing out the first set with two hard-hitting compositions, including the stunning waltz "New Church". Transforming the simple beat into a macabre swagger, bassist Madden and drummer Reynolds maintained a dense, thickly undulating backdrop for the frontlines' improvisations and Gilchrist's own extended solos. Building the piece layer by layer, Gilchrist shaped the music not only through exceptional solos, but an intriguing accompaniment style. As an accompanist, Gilchrist is notable both for his dramatic capacity and an unusual ability to work both with and against the other players in order to recontextuallize their individual solos and the overall direction of the piece.
Returning for a second set, Gilchrist proceeded to present an even stronger, more unified, and more experimental series of tunes. Hitting stride almost immediately, the band took off with a powerful, bass driven tune, "Collage", and then turned to a longer, more involved composition, the aptly named "inchworm". Essentially an extended theme and variations building off of a simple initial statement, this piece gave each band member ample opportunity for prolonged solos as well as some interesting group interaction. Turning next to still another original, "Unsolved, Unresolved", the band kept up its breathless pace, segueing directly to the night's second peak, the highly exploratory tune "Bubbles on Mars". A testament to both Gilchrist's compositional and arranging skills, this deftly performed piece revolved around a popping bass line and pit a unified horn section against Gilchrist's increasingly discordant departures to paint a distinctively otherworldly landscape.
Finally turning to material from their recently released debut album, the band closed out the night with "Assume the Position", a forceful exercise in precision during which all six band members not only cut loose, but performed invigorating improvisations, particularly Tompkins whose deep-throated tenor solo bristled with energy and attitude.
It was after this final piece had drawn to a close that I realized Gilchrist had presented an entire evening of innovative, exceptionally engaging, genre-violating music without once dipping into the well of jazz standards, and almost entirely avoiding material from his debut album. As impressive as the music itself was, it was perhaps this willingness to take risks, to break expectations, and to engage the audience with new, totally personal experiments that left the greatest impression. That and the overwhelming groove. Gilchrist will perform next at Bohemian Caverns Sept. 17th. If you miss him then, keep an eye out for his frequent dates in both Baltimore and D.C., or check out his current release, " The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist ".