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Billy Childs at the Douglas Beach House

Bill Leikam By

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Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble
Douglas Beach House
Half Moon Bay, CA
May 2, 2010

The packed Douglas Beach House was a testament to the Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble's reputation, and moreover the performance confirmed that he and the band were well within the groove despite the group's not playing together for the preceding eight months. Childs brought with him what proprietor Pete Douglas called a band with a scary depth of talent. This afternoon on May 2 Billy Childs smiled with confidence as he sat before the Steinway Grand, checked out Marvin Smith over on the drums, Larry Koonse on the acoustic guitar, Bob Shepard on flute, alto and soprano saxophones, Carol Robbins on the concert harp and Hamilton Price on acoustic bass.

After the first number, "Aaron's Song," a spellbinding piece, Childs said, "I'm honored to be here with this group and to share this stage with so many legendary musicians who've played here." The audience reacted with cheers and applause as though it too was honored to have Childs and his sextet ready to entertain them on this late afternoon that would extend into the evening.

The second number "Hope In the Face of Despair" brought Bob Shepard to the fore, allowing him to stretch out with Childs' abstract piano in stride with the tenor sax. Meanwhile Smitty lay back on his drums until about midway through the tune when he surged forth from the background followed by Larry Koonse riding in with his guitar and the piece ending with a feeling of "Well, this too can work itself out: there is hope."

As the ensemble moved from one tune to the next, it became clear that Childs could have performed a beautiful concert on this occasion with only himself, Hamilton Price on bass and Smitty Smith on drums. However, with Shepard's saxophones and flute, Koonse's acoustic guitar and Carol Robbins' harp, these excellent musicians gave Childs the ability to extend and refine the textures of his music to the obvious delight of the crowd. The pay-off was especially evident when Robbins had the opportunity to bring her harp alive with long, rich and full strokes across her strings. Looking back on the performance, one almost wishes there were a few more such moments throughout the concert.

All the way through both the first and second sets, it was difficult to characterize this powerful jazz chamber music—Childs' fingers rippling across the keyboard, then the focus on the sax, or maybe a breathy flute passage, next the harp rising to the demands of the surging passages, the drums remaining laid way—way back—and then coming up to meet the listener head-on, as though from beneath the Earth, with the guitar delicately maintaining the forward momentum and Price back there on the bass keeping it all moving straight ahead and leaving all of us in the audience agape and wondering where it would turn next—which path would it take?

According to noted jazz reviewer and blogger Don Heckman, Billy Childs' music is contemporary impressionism. And so it is. The pianist-leader-composer said that he writes in such a way as to create images. When you look at the titles of his compositions, the meaning of that statement pops right out at you: "Into the Light," "The Red Wheelbarrow," "The Path Among the Trees," just to name a few. Billy Childs is a jazz poet.

With the concert racing toward its end, with the audience's sincere applause after each tune and with the last notes, the house rose to its feet and extended to the Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble its heartfelt appreciation. The encore consisting of the trio—Billy Childs, Hamilton Price and Smitty Smith—rounded out the evening, more in recognition of the crowd's enthusiastic endorsement than anything else. This is a must-see sextet, fully supporting Pete's comment that this band has a scary depth of talent. It was truly an honor to hear such outstanding jazz.

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