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Interviews

Billy Childs: Lyric

By Published: November 7, 2005

...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.

AAJ: Yeah. The level is super high for everybody.

BC: Yeah. So in order to stay on that level you have to keep practicing. But then in order to stay on another level composing you have to keep composing. So it's kind of hard. One suffers when the other one prospers. At a certain level they can both kind of augment each other. But then when you get really specialized, or being known really as a composer or a pianist, to maintain that is hard. It takes a lot of time.

AAJ: Maybe at that point you have to make more of a conscious decision...

BC: A lot of times I'll get my composition practice in because I've got a commission to write something. I have a project, you know? Or if I have a project where I'm playing piano then...there are a couple of pieces that I've had to learn which are really difficult so that forced me to have to practice.

AAJ: Yeah, I was going to ask about that specifically. Whether marketplace kinds of things sometimes make the decision for you about whether you're going to concentrate on your playing or writing.

BC: Yeah. Pretty much it does, you know. I was talking to Chick Corea and he had said a long time ago it was really hard to get motivated to compose something unless he had a project in mind. Unless there was a project.

AAJ: Right. Unless you know that it's actually going to get played.

BC: Yeah. Why it is that you're spending the time doing whatever it is that you're doing.

AAJ: Well—the stuff on Lyric...there's a ton of music, and lots of musicians. Especially the pieces that have that augmented string section and some other instruments as well. So much music, over an hour.

BC: Yeah, like seventy-five minutes.

AAJ: Yeah, a lot of music. Have you been writing this stuff for...maybe even years? How long have you been working on this music?

BC: Yeah. I was approximating how long the group's been in operation. It's been about five years since we first started talking about it. "In Carson's Eyes" was the first thing I had written for the group and that was back in 1998 or '99. I remember doing a clinic at Berklee School Of Music and working out a lot of the ideas for "In Carson's Eyes." That had to be like about seven, eight years ago.

AAJ: Was he (Carson is Childs' son) a baby then?

BC: Yeah, he was. He's nine. When he was born he had these incredibly large, round eyes you know. So I wrote a song about that.

AAJ: Yeah. There's a cool picture of him playing the cello. That's him on the [cd artwork]...

BC: No, no. That's me me back in about 1967. It looks like Carson though, actually. That's what Carson looks like.

AAJ: Oh, man! (Laughs) I figured that was Carson. Great picture. So a lot of the music, including "In Carson's Eyes" kind of, seems almost like program music.

BC: What do you mean?

AAJ: Well, sometimes (maybe more in Classical music) things are written to kind of represent an event [or a person or place] to produce specific images or something like that. I'm wondering if you have that kind of thing in mind? Do you just think of that vaguely? Or are you really trying to be specific about certain things?

BC: It's a trip you know. What I usually tell people about composing is there's really no one way to conceptualize composing. It could be programmatic music to depict some sort of story line or image. Or it could be expressionist or impressionist, you know? It could be wherever you're coming from. What you're trying to express is what the motivation should be. So all this to say that some of these pieces started out just as music, you know, and some of them started with me trying to evoke some sort of image. Like, "In Carson's Eyes" started out with me trying to evoke the image of what I thought Carson was.

But "American landscape," I had just a notion of these triads, you know, it kind of sounded American. Most of these, I guess [were] trying to tell some sort of story now that I actually think about it...beforehand, and then the music came out. But sometimes I just write the music and then kind of figure out what it means to me.

AAJ: When I think about that kind of thing, sometimes I guess it's black and white where you know you're setting out to do a particular thing. But a lot of times, people I've spoken to, and myself as well, it seems like it's kind of a chicken or the egg kinda thing.

BC: Uh huh. Yeah. Like "Prelude In Bb Major" just started out Baroque. I wanted to do something, kind of an updated neo-classic take on baroque music. Where it's baroque, but then the harmonies are a little askew.

AAJ: A tune that's not on the record, "Voices of Angels," is it something that you're working on, or are you going to perform it soon?

BC: Actually it was performed in April.

AAJ: There was some kind of connection between that tune and a tune that's on Lyric called "Hope In The Face Of Despair." Is there some similar music and it's just augmented. Or are they just based on the same book, Maus?

BC: Well it's based on the same atrocity which is the Holocaust. Basically they're both coming from that same thing where Maus is. Have you read Maus?

AAJ: No, but I've heard of it. The Spiegelman book, right?

BC: Yeah. The Art Spiegelman graphic novel about his father's trials and tribulations in Auschwitz. I found the book incredibly inspiring so I wrote a piece that was my take on what I was thinking after having read that book. "Voices Of Angels" is a cantata that I composed for chorus, orchestra, and soloists where the text is poetry written by children in the Terrezin concentration camp.

Terrezin was kind of this way station in the Czech Republic that the Nazis used as a propoganda tool to fool, perhaps an all too gullible Red Cross into thinking that the Jews weren't being harmed. Because they let a lot of Jewish culture flourish there, you know. Even still, like 90% of the people ended up in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, or Dachau anyway.

But this was kind of a way station. So, they let a lot of education...the elders educated the younger children. They let them write poetry and paint pictures and put on plays and play music. There's a musical that was written in there that there's a score to. It's like a children's musical. A lot of the stuff is really positive and happy sounding. Anyway, the poetry was taken from this collection called I Never Saw Another Butterfly and I set it to music. So, "Hope In The Face Of Despair" and "Voices Of Angels" are similar in that they both deal, directly or indirectly, with the Holocaust.

AAJ: I'd love to [hear it]. Is there going to be a recording available of "Voices Of Angels" put out?

BC: There's an archival recording which sounds damn good. The orchestra played incredibly and the chorus was unbelievable. Luciana Souza was a soloist on it.

AAJ: She's a wonderful singer.

BC: She sounded great. And we had a fifteen year old girl singing also. It was recorded at the Disney Concert Hall here. It was a really great night.

AAJ: So, as I was listening to all the stuff on Lyric I was trying to think of other things I could compare it to for writing's sake. You know, try to put it into context for people to maybe know what they're going to be getting into. I couldn't think of a whole lot. Maria Schneider came to mind just in terms of scope. I was wondering if maybe some of her music was inspiring for this type of project or maybe some other...

BC: Yeah, Maria's a great friend. I mean, I love her music but it wasn't really an influence on this conception. I love what she does with the big band and she does kind of a similar thing with the big band. The big band has a chamber quality, in my opinion, in her writing. In that in the chamber concept each inter-dependent part is equally important, you know? And there's really a reliance on rhythmic complexity and all these layers and stuff and the interplay is really there. I hear that in her music.

Yeah, she even talked me into going with ArtistShare, which I'm glad she did. We're really friends. Really good friends. She's seen this whole process—me recording for this thing, me rehearsing for it. I'd always call her and she'd call me with her projects too. So it's cool.

AAJ: Yeah, I wasn't thinking that the music necessarily sounds the same. It doesn't. It's a really different sound. But just in terms of scope and the long-form thing. You don't see a whole lot of that in the jazz world. I mean, it's out there...

BC: I think Pat Metheny would be another one too. [He] tries to do that. I really feel like I'm a big proponent of active listening rather than passive listening. I like the audience to, when they're listening, to imagine things, you know? To be where the music takes them, rather than have the music just tell them what to think. You know what I mean?

AAJ: Yeah. I like that phrase "active listening." It's somewhat rare in people.

BC: Yeah. (Laughs)

AAJ: So, the thing about creating images. I'm wondering whether you're interested in doing film scoring, or if you've already done some of that?

BC: That's funny. It's a question that a lot of people go to. I haven't really.

AAJ: The whole west coast thing too, you know? You're out there where a lot of the film scoring gets done so...

BC: Yeah, I know. I'm here in Los Angeles and I have a good handle on orchestration and I can write so I should be doing film scoring. And man, I'll tell you. I've written for the L.A. Philharmonic, I've written stuff for the St. Louis Orchestra... I've written for several orchestras, chamber groups, stuff that you'd think would be hard to break into in the classical world in that way. But the hardest thing to break into, by far, has been the film industry.

AAJ: That's interesting.

BC: When there's a lot of money; like tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars at stake, people want to go with who they know. Or who they think is going to sell. At my age, if I haven't done a whole bunch of films, which I haven't, then they'd rather take a chance on someone who's twenty-three, who hasn't done a lot of films. Because they're younger, you know?

AAJ: And they can pay 'em less money.

BC: They can pay 'em less money. And plus also they feel like they're more in touch with what's happening now or something. Some weird psychology with directors and producers which I haven't figured out. But I'd love to do a film score. It's like the ultimate collaborative project. I don't know that I want to have that be my main career.

AAJ: Yeah, I'd assume if you were going to try and do that it'd take a lot of time out of your life.

BC: I'll put it this way: If I had the choice between doing two commissions a year, or two films a year, and they both paid me the same amount of money, I would do the commissions. Because on a commission the person says, "OK. Write this piece. See ya later, at the end," ya know? With film, technology has made it so that the director can interact with you in ways they never could before and be not only hands on but hands in. I mean, because of Protools and sequencing and sampling they can just come in and say, "Well, you know, change this and give me weekly updates of the music so that I can judge if it's good or bad."

AAJ: "Dailies" from the composer.

BC: Right, yeah. (Laughs) So, there's that. The challenge for film music is more psychological. Can you handle having your music thought of as a malleable commodity to be shaped by someone else's vision?

AAJ: I'd assume it's a pretty rare situation where a film composer gets to do music pretty much on his own and then bring it in and have it be done.

BC: Yeah. Like John Williams or something.

AAJ: Or Thomas Newman... People don't mess with those guys. That's cool. There's one tune, I think, on Lyric that's not yours. That Paul Simon tune ["Scarborough Faire"].

BC: It's not really a Paul Simon tune either. It's a Gregorian Chant I believe. A madrigal or traditional or something like that.

AAJ: Oh, I didn't know that. What made you want to do the one cover? Did you just really love that melody?

BC: I do. I like it. I like the modality of it and I can arpeggiate it. I kind of heard it on The Graduate (the classic Mike Nichols film), you know? Those guitar patterns really inspired me to come up with my own patterns. A real arpeggiated way of dealing with that modal melody, which I thought would fit well with the harp and guitar and piano. So that's kind of what inspired me. It's really open...I really am attracted to melodies and harmonies that are non-commital in their direction. It could be minor or major, 4ths or 5ths or something you know? And "Scarborough Faire" is one of those Gregorian Chants that doesn't commit to a specific key. It's more modal. It's a mode.

AAJ: It's real open sounding.

BC: Yeah.

AAJ: The combination of the piano, harp, and the nylon string guitar is really kind of rich. Real big sounding. Harp in particular was the thing that was most different sounding to me on the record. I can't think of a whole lot of harp playing in jazz contexts that I've heard at all (besides Alice Coltrane), or many that I've liked. you know, I've heard a few things that I personally didn't really like, but this thing totally worked. And actually that tune ("Scarborough Faire") is the tune where she takes the solo on it, right? And she really is blowing on it.

BC: I know!

AAJ: It's a really nice solo. It's very cool. I hadn't heard much of that kind of stuff.

BC: She's amazing with that kind of stuff. But, yeah. The harp...well, there's Dorothy Ashby who was the great harpist back in the 1960s. And actually Carol studied with her. She moved to L.A. to do a lot of session work. She was, I think, originally from New Jersey or something. But, yeah. I've heard a few albums where they use the harp. A few current jazz albums where they use the harp. But I don't think the harp is woven into their very conception. But I love the harp. I love the sonic possibilities that it affords you. It was a logical choice for me.

AAJ: The orchestration thing...knowing different instruments, the sounds, how to write for them, all that kind of stuff. It's obvious you've put a lot of work into studying and working with that. Besides the harp, are there some other instruments you've become particularly fond of?

BC: The acoustic guitar. To me, it's harder to write for the acoustic guitar than it is for the harp. The harp is something I understand. It's more similar to the piano in how you make the notes. You're using both hands to play chords, you know? You just have to negotiate this dance with the pedals. But acoustic guitar is something...I even bought an acoustic guitar to try and learn and it's just hard for me to conceptualize it. You have to figure out the notes.

Like for instance, on "Scarborough Faire," there's a pattern in E minor which was easy on piano and I thought would sound really guitar-like where you could hear the open...it's this pattern right here, I'll play it (Plays piano over the phone). I can't even play it anymore (Laughs. Continues playing). That pattern right there.

AAJ: That kind of arpeggiated thing up on top.

BC: Yeah. I thought that would be a natural guitar type of run and then I showed it to Larry and he just laughed (Laughs). Because you have to finger every note. He had to work really hard to make it smooth. Because when he first saw it, it was like (sings relatively awkward/stiff sounding), you know. It was really, like, fingered. Then it sounded like a run rather than an arpeggio. So guitar is another challenge. And a string quartet. String quartet is natural, easy for me to conceive of.

AAJ: Well, the guitar thing man...the way the strings are tuned, some in 4ths and one to a 3rd apart, so you have to write for it. There are some things that are just impossible voicing-wise or [just] much more difficult. So it's cool that you got the guitar and fooled around with it a little bit to see the limitations. I read that you're actually going to be writing something else for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and Luciana Souza. Is that right?

BC: Well, they asked me. I have yet to hear any more about it, but...

AAJ: Larry Koonse is a great guitarist. Maybe those guys [L.A. Guitar Quartet] will have even more crazy, classical technique and they'll be able to deal with some stuff that's just really hard guitaristically.

BC: Yeah. That's what I'm really looking forward to. After I write the piece for them I should be pretty straight on how to write for guitar. Yeah. I love acoustic guitar actually.

AAJ: Me too. It's a great instrument. There's a lot of stuff on Lyric where you're using a technique that seems more classically oriented to me—passing around the melody to different sections or to different voices in the group. I assumed you maybe had that in mind before you wrote it, or [did it] occur to you while you were writing the piece? Also, what are you thinking when you're passing that around; whether that has some kind of meaning for you or whether you just like it musically? I'm remembering melodies being passed either from the guitarist into the string section and then maybe to another voice.

BC: It wasn't a conscious, "OK, now I have to use every instrument in the group." I approached it the same way as if I were writing an orchestral piece. I guess I'm attracted by asymmetry, things morphing into other things in a kind of seamless way. Not so much asymmetry, but the seamless flow of ideas and things turning into something else.

An effective way for me to deal with that is to have the same melody, but stated a lot of different ways. It could be in different instruments, in diffrent keys, different rhythms...but it has to be going for something, trying to achieve something, have some purpose. And hopefully...who's to say if I achieved that? That's for anybody. That's for the listener to decide. Yeah, I have all the instruments on the CD because I like their sound. I want to use them and have them make a statement.

AAJ: There was one other thing I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned this tune earlier, "American Landscape." I think you mentioned the fact that the melody is triadic. I wonder maybe what else makes it particularly American for you? The triad thing is kind of American.

BC: Yeah, Coplandesque in a sense. I guess kind of the aggressiveness of it too. And it has a lot of different environments that it travels through. My sister, who lives in New York, every time she visits us here in L.A., she hates to fly. So she takes the train. This was kind of inspired by her descriptions of the American landscape whenever she takes the train. How beautiful it is.

AAJ: Wow. From New York to L.A.? It's probably a fun ride.

BC: Looking out at the coutryside, yeah. It takes about three or four days. I want to do it actually. So the song goes through a lot of different moods and solo sections and kind of transitional sections and each are different but hopefully similarly tied together. There's kind of a simplicity about America, a kind of transparency and obviousness which I think is represented by the triads. And also because America is about progress, sometimes at the expense of everything else. It's a real aggressive, fusion type of vibe I put on the piece.

AAJ: That's exactly what I thought with the opening line [when] the whole band is in and there's that unison line. It definitely made me think of fusion—it's mostly acoustic instruments, but it's definitely a fusion-like line.

BC: Because of the unison aspect of how we're playing it, and the aggressive nature, the odd time signaures, and all of that.

AAJ: The first thing that jumped out in my mind was Return To Forever! (Chick Corea's band from the 1970s) Just immediately that first line made me think of that for some reason. Then it goes all these different places.

BC: Yeah, yeah. Return To Forever is definitely in my blood you know. Pat Metheny Group, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, all of these groups. When I was impressionable, age thirteen or fourteen, when I first started playing piano, what was happening at that point was Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy by Return to Forever. Kind of an unprecedented, in my opinion, era of inter-genre tolerance and respect. Where you would have Michael Tilson Thomas collaborating with John McLaughlin and you had Leonard Bernstein, a Jewish guy, writing [Mass] with everything but the kitchen sink in it? Words by Paul Simon, rock guitars, symphony orchestras and choruses. So this kind of shaped my conception of what to do in music. It's kind of behind this whole jazz chamber conception anyway. In the attempt to seemlessly merge even more disciplines of music.

AAJ: I want to ask you about something you just said. There was a Mass written by Bernstein with the text by Paul Simon? Wow. That's cool. That's a great combination of artists.

BC: Well, I think there was a part in it where Paul Simon wrote some words. Wait, let me see here... I'm trying to find it. I'm looking in my CD collection. I can't find it now. But yeah, I think that's true. Paul Simon, maybe he took some part of the Mass and put it in his own words, or maybe just wrote some words, or maybe treated the whole thing. I'm not sure of his involvement, but there is some section of it that the words are by Paul Simon. It's a great idea. It's just called Mass. It's a real famous Bernstein piece. It's one of his major opuses.

AAJ: Anything you'd like to mention to finish up?

BC: No, not really. I would obviously like to mention the CD (available only online at www.billychilds.com—not in any retail stores or other online outlets). Lyric is something that represents my attempt to invite the listener in. I was trying to have the music have a directness of melody so that would invite the listener in. Then underneath there would be layers of complexity. It would be sophisticated still but on top the main thing would be the melody which wouldn't be so abstruse as to scare a listener away. But that wouldn't diminish the complexity. I find that the music I enjoy the most does that. So that's what I was trying to do.

Visit Billy Childs on the web.


Selected Discography

Billy Childs, Lyric: Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 1 (Lunacy Music, 2005)
Claudia Acuna, Rhythm of Life (Verve, 2002)
Chris Botti, Night Sessions (Sony, 2001)
Dianne Reeves, The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughn (Blue Note, 2001)
Billy Childs, Bedtime Stories (32 Jazz, 2000)
Grover Washington, Jr. Aria (Sony, 2000)
Billy Childs, Skim Coat (Metropolitan, 1999)
Freddie Hubbard, Above & Beyond (Metropolitan, 1999)

Joe Locke, Slander (And Other Love Songs) (Milestone, 1998)
Headhunters, The Return of the Headhunters (Verve Forecast, 1998)
Joe Locke, Sound Tracks (Milestone, 1997)
Billy Childs, Child Within (Shanachie, 1996)
Freddie Hubbard, Keystone Bop Vol. 2: Friday & Saturday Night (Prestige, 1996)
Billy Childs, I've Known Rivers (Stretch, 1994)
Joe Locke, Moment to Moment (Milestone, 1994)

Billy Childs, Portrait of a Player (Windham Hill, 1993)
Fareed Haque, Sacred Addiction (Blue Note, 1993)
Billy Childs, His April Touch (Windham Hill, 1991)
Bob Sheppard, Tell Tale Signs (Windham Hill, 1991)
Bob Belden, Straight to My Heart: The Music of Sting (Blue Note, 1991)
Billy Childs, Twilight is Upon Us (Windham Hill, 1989)
Billy Childs, Take for Example This... (Windham Hill Jazz, 1988)
Allan Holdsworth, Atavachron (Enigma, 1986)

Photo Credits
Top two photos courtesy of www.billychilds.com
Bottom photo by John Ballon



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