In some alternate world somewhere, Lafayette Gilchrist is a great modern American novelist, spinning real-life stories that vividly evoke the spirit of the times. In our world, he ended up as a comparable spirit doing the same thing in the music realm instead. His piano playing nonetheless criss-crosses the span of jazz, blues, funk, gospel, ragtime, boogie and much else besides, weaving all manner of familiar elements in the way other storytellers would thread recognizable slices of life into their works. These pieces feel like stories, or sometimes novellas, in themselves, each presenting a theme with layers of feeling and lived experience underneath.
After almost a decade eschewing the lead role and playing among groups, it was a somewhat startling step for Gilchrist to return with his first solo album, and yet Dark Matter (Lafayette Music, 2019) showed a revelatory panorama of sound and color in that minimal context. Clearly he was only getting started, because Now serves as a bigger and better version 2.0; he's moved from solo to trio, the set length is expanded to a double, and the space allows the group to find a wealth of light and shade in each extensive flight. Familiar listeners will not be surprised that Now is just as ambitious as its title. It makes a striking portrait of the pre-pandemic world (recorded in late 2019) whose sprawling emotion has rung no less true after everything got figuratively turned upside down.
It's an apt statement that the affair kicks off with his signature protest tune "Assume the Position," which once inaugurated his recording debut The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist (Hyena, 2004) and became a famous TV staple through The Wire. More than a decade-and-a-half later, and minus the funky horns, the piece's drive and friction remain as undiminished as the relevance of its theme. From eloquent daydreams to bouncy jams that could last all day, Now explores myriad shades of the moment with the same scope.
There is always a risk of trying listeners' patience when things stretch out as long as this affair does, being largely based on groove and with most tunes stretching from eight to thirteen minutes. Fortunately, Gilchrist's right hand has a magic touch at keeping his vamps endlessly malleable, while Herman Burnie and Eric Kennedy rise and fall in smooth step to make the dynamics ebb and swell throughout. The roots of bebop and stride can be heard in the jaunty likes of "Old Shoes Come to Life" or "Midnight Step Rag"; the tumbling drama or "BMore Careful" and "Tomorrow Is Waiting Now" touch on the big world but find the keenest emotional shades on the personal level beneath. If two-and-a-half hours seems like a lot, this set's explorations pack enough tones and feelings that it still never feels stretched.
CD1: Assume the Position; Bamboozled; Rare Essence; Old Shoes Come to Life; On Your Belly Like a Snake;
Say a Prayer for Our Love; Bmore Careful; The Midnight Step Rag. CD2: Tomorrow Is Waiting Now (Sharon's
Song); The Wonder of Being Here; Purple Blues; Newly Arrived; Enough; Get Straight to the Point; Can You
Speak My Language; Specials Revealed.
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