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Billy Childs: Pushing Past Preconceptions

George Colligan By

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GC: Yeah. Well for me, I actually feel like one of the big advantages that Europeans have—and I hate to just lump Europe into just one category, because it's many different cultures within one continent—in general, it seems like people in Europe go out. They go out and they to either hang out at the pub or to listen to music, or just to be outside of their house not at home on the internet or watching TV. I mean, I'm sure there's some of that, but just to give you an example: you go to say, Cleveland, on a Tuesday, and it seems almost like a ghost town.

BC: Los Angeles.

GC: Right! And then when you go to Europe it seems like people are just out, hanging out, going to hear music. In Japan, people like to go out.

BC: I know. And, man, Prague is the shit. I was in Prague and people were out walking around, it's a beautiful night in a beautiful city, you could just stumble into a jazz club and somebody's really trying to deal with some stuff, you know? Yeah, I know. America is the most developed country in the world but that may be the leading us to some bullshit music or something. I don't know.

GC: In terms of you bringing your band to Europe, do you have the desire to be out there more as a leader? It seems like it's really about that time.

BC: [Laughs] It's about that time! I'm 55...well, I did a European tour about a year ago. It was one of the most rewarding tours I've ever done, one of the most rewarding things as a leader I've ever done. Mostly because of what we were just talking about. We played a gig in Austria, in Vienna. Big-ass 1,400 seat place—which was packed! Sold out! And I played whatever the fuck I wanted. My songs. I took a piano solo here, didn't take one there, then a harp solo, Brian Blade was playing on the gig. It was like a standing ovation, encores, the promoter took us out to dinner after. When we walked into the restaurant, people got up and starting applauding. That's what they think of what we did. And then we'd play at a club here, and have to catch a cab home, you know...we played at the Duc De Lombards in Paris and it was the same thing! Such a warm acceptance. When you're playing, really playing, it's like life food for them, like it's essential to their life that they hear art on that level. And it's really rewarding to provide that art. And I got that sense every gig that we did in Europe. I'm with Myles Weinstein and he's working with me on a quartet thing that I'm trying to put together to do a European tour next summer. And we'll see where it ends up.

GC: I certainly think in terms of your piano playing and your writing, to me you should be out there as much as any of these other cats. One thing I wanted to ask you...you're from LA, and I know you were kind of going back and forth...was that a hard decision not to go back to New York?

BC: I think it really had an effect in terms of my profile in the jazz world. For two reasons—one, the connection to Europe is a lot longer. Promoters find it more difficult to fly me out from LA than New York, for obvious reasons. Number two—New York is perceived as the jazz center of the world. If you're from anywhere else—especially LA which is perceived as an industry, a commercial town—then you're incapable of putting out anything of any depth. Combine that with the fact that I was on a jazz label when I was making a name for myself back in the late '80s, with really great distribution, the problem was that it was called Windham Hill Jazz. Some genius in marketing thought that they would have a jazz label called Windham Hill Jazz; which, of course, Windham Hill was the poster boy for New Age music which is the antithesis of jazz. And so a lot of people would look at the label and go "Windham Hill? Nah this is bullshit, I don't want to hear this." Or they'd hear it, but the Windham Hill image would be so strong that they would still call it New Age.

GC: I could see that. I don't know if you ever heard some of Dave Holland}'s ECM records, there's one I'm thinking of with Steve Coleman and Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and it really doesn't sound anything like what you'd typically hear from ECM. I could see people being confused, if they buy into that. That's interesting.

Did you ever want to live in New York full-time?

BC: I had a place there, it wasn't full-time though. By the time I had the place I had a family and everyone was used to being here. I kind of did, but I'm in New York so much now. I've kind of established myself in this particular direction, like I have this jazz chamber group, and I'm kind of cool with not having been in New York, but do I wonder how shit might have turned out? Yes, I do. I think as a jazz pianist, I think I'd be way more out there and touring every summer and that thing. But being in LA has given me a minute to reflect and become more of a skilled composer. Which to me is much more rewarding and important. Because I've developed this thing here, LA's kind of a studio town, so when I have some heavily orchestrated thing, or some chambers type thing, it's not difficult to call people to rehearse it and hear what it sounds like. Everyone has a car, and you have your garage to rehearse in.

In New York, you've got to get everybody into a practice room in the city and people have to worry about parking—it just wouldn't work. So I've learned a lot just about getting together with people about composing. And that's contributed to who I am right now. One thing that New York critics don't like about me is that I don't apologize about being from LA, you know? I don't defer to New York. They listen to my music and they have that geographical chauvinism that nothing of depth can come from anywhere other than New York. That's a pet peeve I have with critics, and that's why when that cat jumped on you, I was like "who the fuck are you to say that?"

GC: Well it seems like a lot of times there's an agenda or there's preconceived notions not based on anything that has to do with the sound of the music. Because if I was listening to your music I wouldn't think, "Oh, this is an LA vibe." I would just hear it as some killing stuff.

BC: Well, I appreciate that.

GC: Yeah. I don't like to think of things in that way, because certainly there's a lot of things that come out of New York that don't have the "New York sound," whatever that is. Your music certainly has as much intensity if not more than a lot of stuff that comes out of there.

BC: You know I have to say—a lot of times I use a New York rhythm section because it's still hard for me to find drummers and bassists that are playing like the ones in New York. In LA you're not going to find any Antonio Sanchezes or Clarence Penns or Brian Blades. Actually you would—he lives there, doesn't he?
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