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With Todd Barkan now at the helm of 32 Jazz, West Coast jazz musicians are receiving more attention, what with the label releasing new CD’s by under-recorded and vastly talented pianists Denny Zeitlin and Billy Childs, among other musicians with a West Coast presence. With the jazz press concentrated in New York and to a lesser extent in Chicago, Childs’ lack of visibility and his diligence in orchestrating projects like Dianne Reeves’ new album, The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan, have kept him behind the scenes more than he deserves.
Bedtime Stories rectifies Childs’ relative paucity of recording activity with a concept stressing the capacity of the piano for reassurance and the expression of subtle but complex thought. For the most part, his album, Bedtime Stories, consists of some of the more contemplative tunes that Herbie Hancock wrote and recorded. When Childs isn’t performing the Hancock songs, he plays with a Hancock approach to tunes with like-minded themes by composers like Wayne Shorter or Duke Ellington.
Rather than presenting his own style, Childs pays tribute to his inspiration by nailing Hancock’s style, with its shifting internal movement of notes within a chord or his unpredictable melodies or his relaxed accents within a disarming and deceptive simplicity. Drummer Billy Hart, who performed in Hancock’s Mwandishi group, says that “I can remember [Childs] coming out to hear the band whenever we were in L.A. when he was just a kid. He knows the music so well harmonically that he can sound like Herbie without imitating him.”
Well, that’s literally true. Even on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Childs reharmonizes the tune and adds a variation on the two-note theme at the end of the tune for understated intensity. And Sting’s “Fragile” is approached to elucidate its flow and melodic potential over shifting changes.
But Hancock’s tunes remain the center of the CD, and they’re the ones that bring out Childs’ technical excellence, theoretical comprehension and emotional flair. With most of Hancock’s tunes taken from his inimitable Speak Like A Child and Maiden Voyage albums, Childs has chosen to avoid Hancock’s fusion explorations like “Head Hunters” or his earlier simpler tunes like “A Tribute To Someone” or “Watermelon Man.” Childs writes that the tunes are meant to recall memories from childhood, and while I don’t subscribe to that theory, they do put the listener in a mood of calmness and reflectiveness. More importantly, they rightly give due recognition to Herbie Hancock as one of the most important pianists of his generation and possessing of a varied and seemingly bottomless imagination.
Childs recorded a stretch of CD’s on Windham Hill a decade ago and a few more on Shanachie and Metropolitan, and devotees of outstanding jazz piano music may hope that 32 Jazz will encourage him to record more frequently in the future.
Track Listing: Ain
Personnel: Billy Childs, piano; George Mraz, bass; Billy Hart, drums