Not the Sound, But the Spirit of Jazz The standard canon for up-and-coming jazz pianists has traditionally included the likes of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and 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.

Not the Sound, But the Spirit of Jazz

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Mr. LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST (Jazz Pianist): One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of song, "In Depth")


The standard canon for up-and-coming jazz pianists has traditionally included the likes of Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and maybe some early Herbie Hancock. But Lafayette Gilchrist grew up in the Washington-Baltimore area listening to much more funk, hip-hop and go-go than jazz.

You can hear the influence of these modern beats in the compositions of Lafayette Gilchrist's new CD from Hyena Records. It's called "Three." Lafayette Gilchrist and his trio came to play for us in NPR Studio 4A.

(Soundbite of song "In Depth")

ROBERTS: Lafayette, you just turned 40, is that right?

Mr. GILCHRIST (Jazz Pianist): Yeah.

ROBERTS: Happy birthday.

Mr. GILCHRIST: Thank you. Thank you so much.

ROBERTS: And I understand you didn't start playing piano until college. Can you tell me that story?

Mr. GILCHRIST: Mm-hmm. Well, I was taking an English class, which happened to be in the Fine Arts building. And my first roommate and I - we were just walking around, looking at stuff and we happened to stumble into the recital hall where there was a nine-foot concert grand piano, Steinway.

I decided to fool around on it a little bit. I sat down at it and I remember the moment like it was yesterday because I remember the very first thing I hit on the keyboard I liked the sound. I didn't know then but now that I reflect upon it, I was already kind of assigning order to the sounds that I was making.

ROBERTS: So since you started with moving things around and imagining how you wanted it to sound in your head, as opposed to starting at, you know, eight years old, learning "Fleur de Lis(ph)", do you think that is a blessing or a disability? I mean, is it sort of like going straight to painting cubism without ever learning line drawing?

Mr. GILCHRIST: I don't know. I mean, because I think, at some point, you have to try and learn as much as you can learn about your instrument. You know, I wouldn't recommend the way that I came to it, but I came to it the way I came to it. That's the way it happened. But I did eventually go back and learn the basic rudiments and - but then that leads you to the masters, in a way. You had to investigate people who've been there on that road and went a lot further.

ROBERTS: Like who?

Mr. GILCHRIST: Oh, man, like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and not just the piano players. You know, I listen to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, right on up to Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and John Gilmore - all there wonderful, wonderful people. I mean…

ROBERTS: And have you heard that music before?

Mr. GILCHRIST: No. No. Not really. Not really. I heard more about it than actually hearing it. But my grandmother, she had records of like Fats Waller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, you know, Billy Stein, Nat King Cole. And it's funny because I remember when I played - the first time I played for my grandmother, she said, sounds good, baby, but where's your left hanging. You need to listen to Fats Waller - you and your left hand. Yeah, and I was just she knew what instrument is supposed to sound like, you know?

(Soundbite of piano playing)

ROBERTS: You live in Baltimore now but you grew up here in the D.C. area.


ROBERTS: We like to be pretty proud here in D.C. about go-go music because it's one of the few, sort of, original D.C. art forms. I understand you - did you know Chuck Brown growing up? Was he a neighbor?

Mr. GILCHRIST: Well, no. I didn't know him. He lived near my aunt (unintelligible). And sometimes we hear the band rehearsing. You know, when I was a kid, we go hear him in the parks, we hear him in the Langley Park and when I got old enough to go to the clubs, sort of.

ROBERTS: I'll never sneak in to the club.

Mr. GILCHRIST: Oh, my god. When hear him at places like the Chapter Three(ph) in the Washington Coliseum. The (unintelligible) would hit Chuck Brown. And it was so many great go-go bands around at that time. You had Trouble Funk. You had EU. You had Junkyard Band. You had Redds and The Boys. And there is so many groups.

ROBERTS: I had the honor of interviewing Chuck Brown in the last few year and I was asking him how he felt about musicians who sort of adapt and interpret go-go and used some of his licks(ph). And he's said the one thing he misses in a lot of the updates is a horn. He said he loves his horns.

Mr. GILCHRIST: Oh, yeah.

ROBERTS: And you're playing with a trio right now but you have an octet that's heavy on the horns.

Mr. GILCHRIST: Oh, yeah. That's really my group, the New Volcanoes. That's the sound that I've always been fond of because when I used to go hear Chuck Brown, that was really the first exposure to jazz that I heard. I man, he would play the "Harlem Nocturne" and he would play "Don't Mean A Thing." And he would play "A Train." And the way he played it sounded so natural to me that when - I remember distinctly when I heard "Harlem Nocturne," the original version, the first thing in my mind - I didn't say it - but in my mind, I thought like they're playing the rhythm wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILCHRIST: Really, that was my first thought. So I didn't know anything about jazz other than what I got to Mr. Brown.

ROBERTS: I want to play a little bit of "Assume The Position" from your 2004 CD. This is with the full complement of horns. Let's hear a little bit.

(Soundbite of "Assume The Position")

ROBERTS: So how do you pair this down for a piano, bass and drums?

Mr. GILCHRIST: Well, that particular tune works with or without the horns, really. It just mean that I have to really get the line across.

ROBERTS: Does it put pressure on you at the piano to really kind of fill up the sound?

Mr. GILCHRIST: You know, a little bit. Not pressure, just a little added duties, you know? There's no pressure.

ROBERTS: Let's hear it. Let's hear it with the trio version. This is "Assume The Position."

(Soundbite of song "Assume The Position")

ROBERTS: "Assume the Position," played by pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, backed by bass player Anthony "Blue" Jenkins and drummer Nate Reynolds here in Studio 4A.

This new CD, "Three," it's getting some attention. Are you hoping that the attention will let you play more with the octet, maybe bring the horn section on the road?

Mr. GILCHRIST: Absolutely. I would love an opportunity to do that. The economics of the business is the main problem. It's very hard to take an eight-piece band on the road. That's very difficult for even the big name guys. I mean, I can't remember the last time I've heard that Herbie Hancock having an eight-piece group out on the road. And he's Herbie Hancock, you know?

ROBERTS: Well, I hope we can hear you on the road with a full band one of these days. I look forward to that. And we'd like you to play sideway(ph) something, but before you do that, let me just say thanks to all of you for coming in. It's really been a pleasure.

Mr. GILCHRIST: Thank you so much for having us.

ROBERTS: And what would you like to take us home with?

Mr. GILCHRIST: I'll take you home with some blues. This is called "The Enquizator's Request."

One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of song "The Enquizator's Request")

ROBERTS: Pianist Lafayette Gilchrist and his trio playing "The Enquizator's Request" in Studio 4A.

You can hear more from this session at our Web site, The recording engineer was Chris Nelson.


Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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