The clamorous noonday crowd washes cacophonies of noise across the Lexington Market like chattering waves breaking on a rocky shore at high tide.
Amid this uproar, on a bit of a stage at the end of the historic market's food court, jazz pianist Lafayette Gilchrist takes his solo unperturbed. Totally inside his music, he could be in an empty rehearsal hall.
Somewhat incongruously, the tune is Softly, As in the Morning Sunlight. But Gilchrist is not playing it with the elegant delicacy of the classic John Lewis Modern Jazz Quartet version of this old love song. Instead, he propels the music with a percussive force that floats it out over the exuberant crowd as serenely as a hovering seabird.
"The rowdiness ... doesn't bother me," Gilchrist, perhaps Baltimore's finest young jazz pianist, says after the midday gig. "It doesn't bother me, if I know the music is penetrating through that. I thought what we were doing was strong enough to command people's attention. And it did.
"It's almost like public poetry," he says. "The poet stands up in the middle of an atmosphere where there's all kinds of activity going on and he's espousing poetry. That's the feeling I got of what we were doing. ... In a setting like that, it's public art."
Gilchrist, 32, has been playing and writing music since even before his graduation from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 1992, and developing a national and even international reputation. He's even been reviewed in Polish in the city of Wroclaw, where he played with David Murray, the great tenor sax player. He leads his own band, the New Volcanoes, here in Baltimore.
At Lexington Market, he's a sideman in a band led by Craig Alston, a fine tenor player, with Freddie Dunn on trumpet, Eric Kennedy on drums and Jeff Reed on bass - all first-class musicians he's proud to play with.
Dunn's an old friend and a regular with the New Volcanoes. He plays a killer solo on "Assume the Position," the first tune on Gilchrist's first CD for Hyena Records, The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist, released last year.
The CD has been widely praised. Web site All About Jazz described it as "loud, powerful and uncompromising music, swelling at the seams with bursting, syncopated horns, but contained by a steady funk bottom." Critic Geoffrey Himes of The Washington Post picked the CD as one of the 10 best of 2004 - "a breakout project that should transform Gilchrist from local hero and perennial sideman into a major jazz figure."
'Unofficial music major'
Not bad for a guy who never sat down at a piano until he was 17.
That was 15 years ago. He was going to summer school before starting his freshman year at UMBC.
"I tell people this, but I don't think anybody believes me," he says. "I went into the recital hall at UMBC, just wandering around the Fine Arts Building. There was a nine-foot Steinway grand piano sitting up on the stage. It seemed to be sitting there for me. It seemed to be almost saying, 'This is something you can do. Come on, check me out.'
"I walked up. I sat down at the piano, I hit the sustain pedal, and I pretended I was really playing something. Fortunately for me, the very first thing I played, I remember it sounded great to me. I never lost that thing. I never lost the feeling of that first moment. I just went wow!
"It was like it touched something in me, deep," he says. "I think in that moment music found me."
An economics major then, he nonetheless began hanging out in the Fine Arts Building, spending "every spare moment" in the piano rooms. "I ended up practicing six to eight hours a day," he recalls. "I would get books. I got one of those self-starter music books. I started to sketch out my ideas. It was pretty horrible at first."
He brought his pieces to Freddie Dunn, now his New Volcanoes colleague but then a music major a couple years ahead of him at UMBC. Dunn, he says, "was very patient with me," read the music and made suggestions.
"Slowly I began to get it," Gilchrist says. "I got to be such a regular fixture that they gave up throwing me out of the piano rooms. I was the 'unofficial music major.' "
He made a tape and played it for his folks. They were impressed, but dismayed.
"My mother had one of those looks like, 'Oh God, I hope he's not thinking of majoring in music.' They wanted me to be a bourgeoisie in good standing."
But Gilchrist kept up with his music even as he continued his formal education. He graduated in 1992 with a major in African-American studies.
"Everybody was satisfied," he says.
His big break
He'd been playing with the Volcanoes and doing solo gigs up and down the East Coast for about 10 years when he got what has been his biggest break: the opportunity to play with modern jazz legend David Murray's octet.
"His piano chair is deep," Gilchrist says, listing the honor roll of Murray's players. "John Hicks, Don Pullen, Sir Roland Hannah, McCoy Tyner - marvelous, great piano players."
"I went up and introduced myself and said I'm a piano player and I'm looking for work for my group," says Gilchrist, who is never shy when talking about his music. Murray and his French wife, Anne Bordet, run a promotion and production company. Gilchrist sent them a homemade recording.
"It was a great thrill [about a week later] to hear this woman with this French accent over the phone say, 'We think your music is important and we want to talk to you further.' "
Nothing more happened, though, until Murray came to town again a few weeks later. Local saxman Craig Alston called and said 'Murray is in town looking for you.' Gilchrist and trumpet player Dunn made sure they found him.
"We just jammed," he recalls of that meeting. "Everybody just jammed. We ate. We jammed. We drank, ate and jammed some more. He asked me to bring some of my music. I brought a couple of tunes. He played those, then he pulled out a couple of his tunes and we just called some tunes, standards and stuff, and we played.
"Right away I could feel a rapport with him. He had that strong tenor thing, and me being into [Duke] Ellington and [Thelonious] Monk. ... We really hit it off on Ellington. I think he was impressed that I knew so much about Duke Ellington and was into Duke Ellington. Not just as a piano player, but also as a composer, and the whole thing."
It was a terrifically liberating experience, Gilchrist says.
"To play with somebody who can do all of that, it opens you up instantly, while we were in the process of playing. It opened up a whole 'nother world."
A few weeks later, Murray's pianist left for a solo career and Gilchrist had a job.
"So before I knew it I was thrust into the New York spotlight," Gilchrist says. "I did my first gig at the Iridium," one of the top jazz clubs in Manhattan.
"I don't think I necessarily played that great. I dunno, because I can't remember anything I played. But I know I played."
Danced to live music
Gilchrist grew up in Washington. But he found his musical life in Baltimore.
"Everything musically on [The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist] comes from Baltimore," he says. "Baltimore is really the town that shaped what I do musically."
But Washington, too, left its influence on his music.
"I'm also a child of D.C. go-go music," he says. "We were in a lucky position growing up in Washington. We would go see bands like Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Trouble Funk, Junkyard Band, Reds and the Boys, you name 'em. We were used to seeing people that played drums, conga drums, played bass, played guitar, played horns. It was live music and you danced to it. We were almost like the last generation of young people - in our own popular tradition - we were one of the last on the urban scene in America to really dance to live music."
And everybody who listens hears funk rhythms in his music.
"I come from hip-hop culture," he says. "I'm not a rapper. I'm not a DJ. I'm not a dancer. But I feed off of all that. All of that's part of what I grew up in, what I grew up around."
It's reflected in his look. He habitually wears an old-school Kangol "Bin," the semi-official headgear of the hip-hop generation. People have mistaken him for rap impresario Jay-Z when he's walked through a European airport on the way to a gig with Murray.
Mike Cerri, who also plays trumpet with the New Volcanoes, has known Gilchrist since he first sat down at that piano at UMBC. Cerri was running the school's recording studio. He's a lawyer now, but he continues to play with the band. On the CD, he's featured on a tune called "New BeBop."
"Mike is probably my closest confidant, in terms of the music," Gilchrist says. "He was the first one to take my music seriously."
More than a dozen years older than Gilchrist, Cerri loves to play his music, which is why they've been playing together about a dozen years.
"The thing about Lafayette's music is that it's his music, but he borrows a lot of different influences from the real world, as opposed to the museum world where a lot of jazz musicians [play]," Cerri says. "I think what happens in his case is that any music that he thinks is important and reflects the times and has an impact on the times, he incorporates into his music.
"You know he's always lived in an urban setting and his music has an urban sound. It's very earthy. It's roots music but it's the city. ... It has an integrity to it. He's had that ever since I've first known him."
Writing for people
These days, Gilchrist lives in the 1700 block of Linden Ave., one of the loveliest enclaves in Bolton Hill, a real hidden treasure. Sitting on the steps of the gazebo at the end of his block, the music of the street is playing around him: folks passing by saying hello, birds twittering above the gazebo, kids playing nearby, sirens wailing around the corner.
He's asked about something else that his longtime band mate Cerri said about him: that he writes music for the individuals he plays with, not just for their instruments.
"Duke Ellington didn't write music for the saxophone," Gilchrist says. "He wrote music for Johnny Hodges. He wrote music for Ben Webster, for Russell Procope, for Paul Gonsalves, for Harry Carney. He wrote music for these individuals.
"I began to really absorb that concept. I'm still learning how to play with different members of the band, to really design music that will complement what they're doing personally, but will also be an expression of where I'm coming from."
A couple of days later, in the performance space at Charles Street music store An Die Musik, he's playing a tune from his next Hyena CD, which is due out in the fall. Then he plays Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" and "Solitude," segueing to sharp, edgy Thelonious Monk-type chords, before rolling into a James Brown rhythm.
He has big ambitions.
"Hear the counterpoint," he calls out. "That's what I'm trying to do. I'm beginning to understand Monk, Ellington and those guys. Musical architects, that's what they were. I'm trying to sculpt my material into that realm."
He's got tougher goals that he hopes to meet, too. Jazz musicians, he says, too often are paid to be "musical wallpaper."
"I never wanted the music to be background music. I wanted the music to be something you must listen to, [to have] an aesthetic devoid of pity, devoid of sentimentality, devoid of prettiness. But beautiful in its purity and its honesty."
He almost sounds like a poet, espousing his art.