In these heady musical times, it’s become difficult to find performing jazz purists. So much of the form has been influenced by extrapolations of soul, funk and hip hop that the consumer of such music may not know where one genre ends and the other begins. While some of the hybrids produced by this kind of multi-cultural brew are often intoxicating, these deviations may also leave some to wonder where a work was originally rooted.
Such is the case with the new Lafayette Gilchrist album, Towards the Shining Path. While it’s apparent that jazz improvisation enables Gilchrist to create some dynamic harmonics, the cross-breeding of styles somewhat diminishes the edgier components of Gilchrist’s compositions.
In many ways, Towards the Shining Path is the album Tower of Power would’ve made after a few drops of acid and an overdose of the Miles Davis Quintet. Gilchrist leans heavily upon his horn section and at times, they obscure Gilchrist’s phenomenal gift for piano counterpoint, a la Cecil Taylor and to a much lesser extent, Thelonious Monk. Certainly Gilchrist would resist such comparisons, as is apparent from the mixes Gilchrist and co-producer Mike Cerri have created here. Still, when Gilchrist is heard there is an extraordinary balance between Gilchrist and the backing rhythms provided by Anthony Jenkins bass and Nate Reynolds’ drums. The three of them jam out some tremendous straight ahead lines which are unnecessarily k.o.’d by the large, obtusely funky horn section. Throughout my spins of this album, I strained to hear the beautifully constructed bridges and paths of the rhythm section which were ultimately more interesting than the brass knuckles punch of the hopelessly syncopated playing of Cerri’s trumpet, Gabriel Ware’s alto sax, and the two tenor saxes of Gregory L. Tompkins and John Dierker.
My reaction to the horns is somewhat surprising, considering my appreciation for big band and swing. However the subtle textures woven by the backing rhythm continually peaks my curiosity as to the direction of their deeply soulful sojourns. When the boys in the background are allowed to come out of the basement, the richness of the band comes to full fruition. The clarity and freshness of Gilchrist’s technique easily trumps the tiresome blasts of the horns. When Gilchrist leads, the nature of the band changes and the listener is treated to some deftly played fills from the supportive saxophones. It is in these moments that Lafayette Gilchrist and his band achieves the genius of their progenitors, letting the listener float upon a cloud of inspired melodies.
Perhaps in future albums Gilchrist will be free to drop the lead horn section that weighs down the rapturous elegance of his jazz designs and allow his compositional ability to take center stage. Until then, I’ll continue listening to Gilchrist for his addictive piano concoctions, and try very hard to tune out the cacophonous blasts of his funky horns.