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Billy Childs: The Perfect Picture

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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There is a somewhat-still-virgin musical territory that rests its innocent heart where classical music ends and jazz commences. Many have beautifully tiptoed on its smooth surface before, mixing, experimenting, creating and even challenging its balance with both improvised and organized notes. Music is in constant evolution, and jazz has always, in one way or another, embraced those who take each step a little further ahead every time. Taking risks makes the magic worthwhile, and the experience always promises to be grand. Composer/pianist Billy Childs' creative magnitude seems to be that of a brilliant, powerful star suspended in the night sky of that same territory, illuminating the way.

His Grammy Award-winning Autumn: In Moving Pictures (ArtistShare, 2010) speaks volumes about his stunning attributes as a composer, arranger and musician, while taking us on an unexpected trip around the always- romantic autumn season, with its changing warm colors, quiet, calm landscapes and soft-falling rain. The awarded "The Path Among the Trees" is almost like a prelude to this jazz chamber ensemble experience, perfectly structured around the astonishing idea that music is not about the form, but about the feeling in it. With that in mind, Childs draws a perfect portrait of his very own inner world, where his music is allowed to grow in a controlled environment, provided for this album by the sounds of classically trained dream-makers like the Ying Quartet and harpist Carol Robbins, while reserving a luminous central stage for the jazz elements on it, with drummers Brian Blade and Antonio Sanchez, guitarist Larry Koonse and bassist Scott Colley. The combination is breathtaking.

Childs' piano playing is never exuberant, for that perhaps would destroy the delicate atmosphere of this project. Instead, it is deliciously exquisite and yet filled with a kind of energy only found in musicians whose soul seems to be made out of a certain understanding of this world—where they try to create music that moves and enriches the spirit, and where they know that being human is not a handicap but rather a lesson learned. His musicianship at this point is beyond compare.

This is a jazz pianist who can view the world around him with a classical point of view whenever he wants to, and yet keep those improvised notes coming at will. This earth may now continue its routine circling around the sun, while we get a chance to experience what it would feel like to touch the stars.

All About Jazz: What exactly is The Billy Childs Ensemble?

Billy Childs: I also call it The Jazz Chamber Ensemble. The nucleus of it is six pieces: piano, bass, drums, acoustic guitar, harp and sax, and then sometimes I'll add a string quartet, and sometimes I'll even add something else on top of that, like a wind quartet. But the nucleus is all six pieces, and an even smaller nucleus, like piano, harp and guitar, which is kind of the sound that led to the whole thing to begin with.

AAJ: Are there any boundaries for you between jazz and classical music?

BC: I don't think there are, or there are less than one would think. I look at music kinda like I look at religion, where you have great religious leaders for every different religion, and the higher you get, to their level, you discover that a lot of them are talking about similar things—like treating everybody like you would treat yourself; they talk about love. And the lower down you get, that is where you start getting all these different separations. And I feel the same way about music: the higher up you get in your spiritual awareness of music the less the boundaries are, and the less developed you are, the more you are ruled by those boundaries. If you are in a spaceship and you look at the Earth, if you see America you don't see the actual shape that is supposed to be, as dictated by the boundaries that we have made. You just see land. That is the way I look at it.

AAJ: Do you think the conception of jazz has changed, from the classical point of view?

BC: You mean like a condescending attitude towards jazz, because they don't have the so-called necessary training that classical musicians claim that is necessary? Yes, I think there is a lot of respect. I am in my fifties, so when I was like fourteen and I was impressionable and my conception of things was pretty much being formulated, that was when fusion was happening, in the early '70s. The point is, that that era was kinda like an unprecedented era between genres: respect and tolerance. So for me, that separation between genres was broken down during that era. Nowadays, a lot of classical musicians want to know how to improvise; they can see the importance of jazz. And there is also an attitude in jazz musicians towards classical musicians that thought that the latter were stiff, inflexible and soulless, and that is not true either.

So a lot of jazz music, like mine and other people's, has a lot of classical form in it. I don't even call mine jazz; I call it jazz chamber music. But nevertheless a lot of jazz musicians use a lot of long forms, a lot of heavy composition, and a lot of classical musicians improvise, so there is a desire to connect.

AAJ: The Ying Quartet.

BC: Well, you know, actually it's changed, because the first violinist, Timothy Ying, left. He stopped doing music all together, so I guess he's a lot happier. But he gave me the honor of making my project his last project, and they had been working with that string quartet for almost 20 years. I met the violist, Phillip Ying, in New York. There is this organization there called Chamber Music America, and he was the president at the time, and they asked me to be on the board, and I joined, and then I met him. And we did this project together; we hit it off really well. In fact, we did "The Path Among the Trees;" that was the first project that I did with him. It started out as a commission.

AAJ: Tell us about the journey of Autumn: In Moving Pictures .

BC: I should start with "The Path Among The Trees." I live in Southern California, and we don't really have any seasonal changes. So, when one autumn I went to upstate New York—I was doing a tour in 2007—I was just blown away by how beautiful the autumn was there, with all different color leaves on the trees. I describe it on the liner notes. As I was driving down I-95, there was this little pathway that I saw in the midst of all this, with a profusion of color—with green and red and brown and amber, all of these colors on this path among the trees. And I was thinking what would it be like to tell a story about some journey along that path: where would that path lead you? So I started thinking about what the music sounds like, coming down that path, and I came up with that piano that opens the piece, and from there the piece evolved, which a lot of times that is the way it goes for me.

With "Waltz for Debbie," I was a little worried about this arrangement, because I know that the song that Bill [Evans] wrote is about innocence—about his niece Debbie, that I think was eight at the time—and is a beautiful song. It almost sounds like a music box playing, when it first starts out. It is beautiful and very delicate. And I kinda take the song through the wringer ... and I don't know why I did that. [Laughs.] Actually, it kinda met a lot of different things that came to be in place. One was that, where I grew up, one of my parents' favorite groups to listen to were The Swingle Singers, that would sing a cappella classical compositions, and would have a rhythm section playing really jazzy behind them, too. And that used to turn me on as a kid; I used to love them. So what's a slow moving melody that could go over that kind of concept? And I kept coming back to "Waltz for Debbie." So that was kinda like the initial idea. And structurally I was thinking—and this was really strange—that it could have, like, a vortex that seems to speed up, almost like a dark hole, and then it comes back on the other side, and you play the melody again, but now it's like an ultimate reality of the melody. That's kinda like the story line behind it. Debbie turned into a complicated young woman; she is no longer innocent. The harp intro and the piano conclusion at the very end are sort of a reminder of the innocence of the song.

In regards to "Prelude in E Minor," well, on my album Lyric (Lunacy Music, 2005), I do a "Prelude in B Flat Major," which is the same orchestration: piano, guitar, harp and bass—no drums and no sax. And if I keep doing these series, I want to write a prelude for each one. I kinda got the idea from Bach. So I would like to do that. And the language of each key is this baroque language, but it is a little bit more modern. The middle part of the prelude is actually very directly influenced by Ravel a lot. I treat this piece like an interlude, like a resting point in the middle of the CD, because what's around it is very intense. You have "The Path Among The Trees," which is a 13-minute piece where you have all these peaks and valleys, and then you have "Waltz for Debbie," where you have a very adventurous treatment of this song, and then the prelude, followed by another long, ambitious piece, "A Man Chasing the Horizon." So it's like a resting place in the storyline of the CD.

"A Man Chasing the Horizon" is structurally held together in a tenuous way. The transitions are not smooth: they abruptly stop and start. They are loosely tied together thematically; I'll take one theme and throw it in this other section, as to remind you that we are listening to a one long piece. Like, for instance, the piano solo is more like a conversation between three people, and that just happened that way because of how Scott [Colley] started. I wanted him to start with a bass line that I had written, but he started with something else, which turned out to be so much better than what I had written, and eventually it turned into the section that I had written. It's a lot of virtuosic playing. And the Ying Quartet is very involved. I wanted to try and do something I had never done before—which was my love for Stravinsky and Bartok—and really involving a string quartet writing, because I wanted to somehow apply that to a jazz context, where you have drum set, and piano and guitar playing along with it. So I kinda used the string quartet as the centerpiece and wrote everything around that; that was pretty much where it was coming from, conceptually. It tells the story of futility, about a guy who is going through all kinds of things to chase something that's unattainable, like a horizon. The title comes from a poem by Stephen Crane, "I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon."

"Pavane," by Fauré, is one of the most perfect melodies ever written, to me. There is not a note or a harmony that needs to be changed in that piece, so what I did was just kind of modernized the harmony and orchestrated it, but I wanted it to sound warm. I wanted it to create the sound of air in this melody. I wanted to leave the air sound of this melody untouched and un-messed with, and I did it as beautifully and as lovingly as I could. So the melody remained intact, but it still has my stamp on it. Actually, I changed the structure, because it was going to be like a straight-ahead jazz ballad, and what I did was just play the melody on the piano. You don't have to improvise or anything; the melody is strong by itself, with a really nice, warm touch, and that would be enough. So there is no improvisation on that song; it is just like a classical piece. I played it with my own voicing on the piano, but it wasn't like any jazz improvisation.

On that drive I mentioned on I-95, one of those days it started to rain. You know how sometimes the sky is blue over here and it is raining over there? Well, it happened to be raining on us. And the patterns of the raindrops on the windshield, as we were driving down the road looking at that beautiful landscape, were hitting the windshield in certain rhythms and certain patterns, and I was sitting there thinking about the rain. It really appeals to me. A nice gentle rain that is raining on these leaves—the sound of them hitting the earth, the windshield or the streets—is something that is beautiful to me, and I wanted to write a piece that represented that, and the piano pattern is what sparks it off. It is sort of glued together by the piano, but there are no landmarks, in terms that you can't hear where the time is, it just sounds like notes that keep happening. It is not a definite pulse; it just keeps flowing, like water falling. So the piano glues everything together, and the instruments come in and out at different times, make their statement, and then they leave again, and that is the spirit of that piece, because that was how the rain was making that impression on me, with shifting rhythms.

There was a constant, steady sound, but it would change slightly, so that was kind of the story I am telling there. At the end, it is reminiscing rain and then sounds that are supposed to sound like drops of rain. This one was one of the most difficult ones to assemble, because there are no landmarks. If you were driving and had no landmarks, you wouldn't know where to turn. In this music there is very few—it just keeps going and you have to keep counting in a very focused and concentrated way, otherwise you get lost, and if you miss your spot ... It is like a fabric: everybody's part depends upon everyone else's for the success of the song. One that misses their entrance or gets in a bit early or a bit late, then it blows the whole thing off, it derails the whole thing. All of my music is like that. So it took a lot of rehearsal to finally get it. It's one of our favorites.

And finally "The Red Wheelbarrow," inspired on that poem by William Carlos Williams, found on the liner notes of this CD. If you didn't know the poem or where it came from, you could go, "How does this song sound like a wheelbarrow?" Because a wheelbarrow is a very functional, mundane object; so how is that translated into something beautiful? But after you read the poem, then you understand. The story I heard is that Williams, who was a doctor as well, was treating this young girl, and it wasn't looking very good. And for some reason there was a red wheelbarrow outside the window, and he was looking at it, and he thought so much depended on it; for some reason he saw the whole balance of the world focused on that object. It represented the delicate balance of everything and everything's dependency on everything else. When I read that poem, I think of a lonely red wheelbarrow in the middle of an open meadow, and it just rained, and the wheelbarrow has water on it, and you see this beautiful landscape. It is almost like an impressionist painting of still-life objects. I am playing very simple chords, and pretty much the guitar is telling the story of this red wheelbarrow. If you can imagine these trees that are around, there is an open field, there is grass, and everything is serene and still, and it just rained and there is this red wheelbarrow. And that is kind of the picture of autumn in my mind as well. And Larry [Koonse] plays it so beautifully.
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