I've always been very particular when it comes to piano playing, or at least listening to piano players, as I couldn't play the thing to save my life. It doesn't matter whether it's a classical, jazz, or pop performance, but it has always taken a very specific type of player for me to able to warm up to the instrument. For some reason there is something about the tone, or the quality of the music, produced by the way it's played that will often leave me feeling emotionally cold. It doesn't matter how technically gifted an individual is, it seems to require some sort of extraordinary gift to generate emotional warmth when playing the piano.
Of course it may have to do with how fiendishly difficult an instrument it is to play with any degree of proficiency, and the amount of rigorous training in technique that so many players have to undergo in order to amass the skill set required to do what is needed to even play the damn thing. There is such a focus on learning how that to bring any soul to the proceedings requires more than what some people can accomplish. I think back to the late Glenn Gould, classical piano player, who for the last fifteen years of his life refused to play in public because of his desire to only produce mistake free music. I once saw a documentary on him which showed him in the recording studio adjusting the pitch of individual notes with technology so that they would ring exactly true.
Okay, so Gould was known for his eccentricities, and for being a tad over the top, but it was listening to his playing that encouraged me to keep listening to piano music. You could feel his music, if you'll excuse the pun, strike a chord within. He might have been obsessed with the technical side of playing, but it was only because he cared about the music. It was that caring, his emotional commitment, that you could feel being transmitted every time he sat down at a keyboard and played. Perhaps it's unfair to use genius as a yardstick for measuring other people, but once you find an ideal it becomes impossible to ignore it. I know I'm constantly listening for echoes of that caring every time I listen to a piano player.
That doesn't mean I expect all piano players to sound like Glenn Gould, but I look for characteristics in their playing that remind me of what captured my imagination about his playing all those year ago. I came across Lafayette Gilchrist, while trolling through the Hyena Records web site and something about him caught my attention. It piqued my interest sufficiently and I asked the label to send me out a copy of his most recent release, Soul Progressin'
Am I ever glad that I did, as this guy's playing, either solo or with accompaniment is some of the most inspired I've heard in ages. Each of the seven tracks on Soul Progressin' have been composed and arranged by Lafayette, which means he's, at the least, indirectly responsible for every note played by every musician on the recording. Therefore, he not only knows what he wants to accomplish with his own playing, he has considered how each part comes together to form a single unit that will accomplish the objective he had in mind when he composed a piece.
Seven other players aside from himself (John Dierker tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Gregory L. Thompkins tenor saxophone, Gabriel Ware alto saxophone, Mike Cerri trumpet, Freddy Dunn trumpet, Anthony "Blue" Jenkins bass, and Nathan Reynolds drums) to think about requires an attention to detail and caring that can't help but enhance a piece's qualities.
My initial impression after listening to the disc was to be wowed by the diversity of the music on offer. From the first track's, title cut "Soul Progressin'", up beat, near funk groove, the simple elegance of "Uncrowned", a memorial to Andrew Hill, to the strange, almost dissonance, of "Those Frowning Clowns" Gilchrist pushes himself and his band in a number of different directions. Sometimes such mixed bag discs can be hard to handle as they come across as a series of disconnected pieces thrown together without any apparent rhyme or reason. However, that's not the case here, as somehow or other, in spite of the obvious distinctiveness of each song, they flow together as if they were individual parts of one song.
I don't think there is a deliberate attempt at "theme", or anything of that sort, that allows the songs to flow like I described, more it's the overall distinctiveness of Lafayette Gilchrist's character that comes through in each song no matter how different each is from another. I deliberately avoided using the word style above, because, at least to me, that implies something superficial, which is definitely not the case with this music. There's a swagger and self assurance to the tracks on this disc that verges on cocky, but they are rescued from arrogance by the music's obvious sincerity and concern with matters beyond itself.
Take the final track on the disc, "Many Exits No Doors" which Lafayette notes is an expression of trying to escape the frustration at modern life, before adding this tag-line: "Time to re-evaluate, but wait no time. Time's up." If you're feeling at all anxious you might not want to listen to this song until you've had a chance to relax, as it manages to convey the pressure of not having enough time and could induce a panic attack on those susceptible to them its so real.
Unlike some pieces which have attempted this that begin slowly and build up gradually, "Many Exits No Door" starts high tempo, and builds to a feverish pitch that is then sustained until it finally collapses under its own weight. Now I don't know about anyone else, but I've had days where I've woken up with my pulse already racing and that doesn't end until I collapse from nervous exhaustion. I swear this song is the soundtrack to one of those days.
Now as you can imagine Mr. Gilchrist has obviously put a lot of himself into not only the compositions, but the arrangements. If you can, think about bringing that same amount of focus and passion to playing an instrument and you'll have some idea of what his piano sounds like. He has a talent for being able to use the piano as a percussion instrument one moment and the next be playing a beautifully melodic lead. He also has a wonderful economy to his playing, and is able to express with a few notes what it might take others a keyboard's worth to accomplish. This serves him in great stead when others are playing leads and he inserts little accents or counterpoints into the flow which say a great deal without interrupting or distracting from the lead's performance.
Soul Progressin' is one of the best jazz discs I've heard this year, and any other year for that matter. I'm sure there will be plenty out there who disagree with me and that's cool, but I haven't heard music as soulful, eloquent, and passionate as this in a long time. A lot of times jazz seems to be cut off from the world around it, existing in some sort of bubble, but not this music. Lafayette Gilchrist's compositions are definitely of this world, and you hear it in every note he plays.