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Billy Childs: Lyric

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...I'm a big proponent of active listening rather than passive listening. I like the audience...to imagine things.
Billy Childs' new recording Lyric: Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 1 may seem a radical new direction from his previously recorded output as a jazz pianist/leader. But, somewhat under the public's marketing radar, for the last six years or so Childs has been spending much of his energy on larger scale composition, arranging, and orchestrations. While still a great pianist, his writing and conception of style/genre is possibly in the forefront of his modus operandi, and has seemingly come to a head with this most recent CD.

Over the last five years Childs has been nominated for his fourth Grammy; has arranged, orchestrated, or conducted for Dianne Reeves, Chris Botti, Claudia Acuna; and has written pieces for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Lyric shows Childs combining diverse elements including instrumentation and forms from the different musical worlds in which he lives. String sections, harps, oboes, jazz solo sections, 1970s fusion style references, acoustic and electric basses, long form material, music inspired by texts based on historical events...it could seem one of the most stylistically discursive recordings out there, but it melds into a cohesive statement that has a distinctively personal character.

And, by the way, there's plenty of great playing on Lyric. With players in the core group including Brian Blade, Scott Colley, Larry Koonse, and Bob Sheppard, not to mention Childs' own excellent playing, people looking for blowing as much as composing will be interested in this CD as well.

As many artists have done recently, Childs has been working with Artistshare for this CD and it is available only online at www.billychilds.com—not in any retail stores or other online outlets.

I was able to speak with Billy Childs from California about his new recording, and some other musical ideas.

All About Jazz: So, I was sent your new record [Lyric] which is really interesting and very cool. I don't know where to start. Is there something in particular that you'd like to start with, or should I just launch into some questions I've got down here?

Billy Childs: You should probably ask me because, man, if I start I'll just ramble. (Laughs)

AAJ: Rambling can be OK. Well, alright. There was a phrase about the group that's on Lyric in one of your write-ups calling it a five year-old ensemble. I'm wondering who in this group has been part of that... Scott Colley (bass), Brian Blade (drums), Bob Sheppard (reeds, flute), Larry Koonse (acoustic guitar), and Carol Robbins (harp). You've all been playing together for about 5 years?

BC: Well, I've known everybody except 'Smitty' (drummer Marvin Smith) and Brian for over twenty years. But in terms of this ensemble...let's see if I can remember. Actually, the group originally started in my head, conceptually, without a horn. Larry was pretty much the only one I had as part of the group in my head at its inception. It started out with a different harpist. But then I started doing it with Carol. Carol and I go way back to high school and that just seemed to fit really well. So the nucleus of the group is piano, guitar, and harp. A lot of the music is written around that configuration.

AAJ: A bunch of stringed instruments.

BC: Yeah. And not only that but stringed instruments that are harmonic, melodic, and also rhythmic. So I guess Brian and Scott kind of joined in when I wanted to do this CD and then we did a few gigs and we'll be doing a few more. But obviously, logistically it's kind of hard to really consider them really in the group because we're here (west coast) and they're there (east coast). Smitty plays a lot of gigs with us. The drum and bass chairs are constantly revolving.

AAJ: I'm going to ask a lot about Lyric specifically but I'm also wondering how much piano trio or quartet playing you do these days. Are you doing much of that more straight-ahead kind of thing as well?

BC: Yeah. Mostly sideman stuff. But not really under my own thing. I'm concentrating on this jazz chamber concept when it's my own act. But I just did a hit last night with Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone playing brother of Wynton and Branford) here in Los Angeles. Donald Harrison was playing sax and Delfeayo's brother Jason was playing drums. It was fun. I do that. But I've been more interested in other things, you know? Combining different elements of music, different genres.

AAJ: This record shows that you've put a ton of work and thought into that idea. In terms of playing vs. writing...I know a lot of artists who do both really well. I'm wondering how much time you put into either, and whether you have to consciously decide to work on playing for a while, or if you set aside time just for writing. Or if it's both equally. Because this new project...it seems like there was just so much writing.

BC: That's a good question because it's a balancing act. You have to keep practicing or composing in order to do either one well. I mean, if you want to play piano you have to keep practicing. Especially in today's competitive [world]. Everybody's really good on the piano.


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