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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.

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.

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