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All In: Lafayette Gilchrist’s Inside Out at the Creative Alliance, Jan. 15

January 17, 2011

In 2007, pianist Lafayette Gilchrist reduced his Baltimore septet, the New Volcanoes, to a trio to release the Hyena Records album Lafayette Gilchrist 3. It was, he admitted, partially an attempt to create a more affordable touring vehicle, but it was also an opportunity to test himself in a format where the pianist has to supply all the chords and melodies without help from any horns. Gilchrist thrived in this format—the tunefulness of his rhythmic riffs became more apparent than ever—and a year ago he formed a new trio, Inside Out, with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Eric Kennedy replacing Anthony “Blue” Jenkins and Nate Reynolds of LG3.

It was a fascinating transition, for the pianist gained a lot but also sacrificed a lot. Jenkins and Reynolds are masters of funk-jazz—always varying but never losing the groove—and they reinforced the hip-hop/go-go strain in Gilchrist’s music that makes him so original. Formanek, by contrast, is a former New York avant-gardist and current ECM bandleader, while Kennedy is perhaps Baltimore’s best mainstream jazz drummer. Instead of reinforcing the groove, the new rhythm section complicates it, tying knots that Gilchrist has to unravel on the fly. As a result, he plays more like he does with David Murray’s Black Saint Quartet than he has on his own albums.

But Gilchrist can’t resist the allure of a horn choir for long. After three extended tunes with the Inside Out trio at the Creative Alliance on Saturday, he called out three guests: clarinetist John Dierker (from the New Volcanoes), trombonist Steve Swell (from New York), and tenor saxophonist Whit Williams (Gilchrist’s first major mentor in Baltimore). The bandleader welcomed the horns with “All In,” which, he said, he had written “in the spirit of the great Harlem stride masters.” It did have a pre-bop sensibility that nicely framed the Lester Young-like sweetness of Williams’ playing.

Next up was the premiere of a three-part suite “written specifically for this ensemble.” It opened with “The Fast Con,” the kind of modern jazz composition that Formanek favors—brimming with notated materials for improvisation and cued segues. It began with Gilchrist introducing a handful of catchy riffs over understated backing before pushing the sextet to attack those themes aggressively. Two thunderous drum crescendos finally climaxed in a screaming clarinet solo. “Simmering” began with the restraint promised by its title, but it too built to a wild finish, boiling over in a clarinet/drums/bass trio before cooling off with a jaunty piano coda. The suite concluded with “Step Lightly,” a succession of irresistible soul-jazz figures—as tuneful as they were snappy—introduced by the piano and then picked up by the horns.

The sextet sounded under-rehearsed and played with some tentativeness that will be erased with more performances. And there certainly should be more performances, for this lineup has stimulated some of the best writing Gilchrist has yet come up with.

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