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Billy Kilson: Nasty Pitch

Trish Richardson By

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He is an incredibly charismatic individual and when you infuse that with his immense talent, it makes it hard for other people to sit in that chair and have the same sort of impact.” —Chris Botti
Here's the wind up. And the pitch. Whoa, did you see that one folks? That pitch was just nasty.

In baseball, occasionally a ball gets thrown by the pitcher that is so good, so perfectly placed, so unbelievable, the announcer calls it nasty. The opposing batter doesn't have much chance of hitting it, but can only look back at the mound and tip his hat with respect.

Occasionally, the same thing occurs in music. Atop a musical mound, there sits a drummer who is so good, so in tune with his instrument, so in the moment, that he is just nasty. That drummer is Billy Kilson.

Trumpeter and bandleader Chris Botti calls hiring Kilson as "perhaps one of the greatest moves of my career." And just like in baseball, it all began with a phone call out to the bullpen, albeit a musical one. But first, Botti had to make sure Kilson was a worthy recruit.

Botti and Kilson first met around 1998, according to Botti, when Kilson played drums for jazz pianist Bob James and Botti was James' opening act. Botti got along well with the drummer and remembered Kilson when Botti had the opportunity to open for Sting, who was beginning a world tour in 1993.

Botti, knowing that Sting has great taste in drummers, knew he had to put someone of high caliber up there on the stage, too. "I knew I had better come back with an amazing drummer. I quickly thought of Billy and reached out to him to join my group," says Botti.

But before Botti made that fortuitous phone call to Kilson, he first had to complete his scouting report, which meant a call to long-time college friend Shawn Pelton. Pelton is the drummer for the Saturday Night Live band as well as a well-respected studio musician.

Recalls Botti, "At the time, before Billy, I usually had jazz drummers or kind of rock drummers, more popular kind of rock drummers. I called Shawn up and I said, 'Listen, I have this opportunity to go out with Sting and I was thinking of hiring Billy Kilson. What do you think about that?'

And Shawn, knowing Billy, said 'Man, I think it is a brilliant idea. And you are going to get so much more than a drummer. You are going to get this guy that can play the drums the way nobody else can and in doing so, you are going to look like the smartest guy in the room!' I told him I had a hunch he would say that so I went ahead and called Billy and talked him into it."

While the phone call from Botti to Kilson turned out to be career changing for both musicians, it certainly took some convincing on Botti's part to get Kilson to take the gig. Kilson and his wife had a new baby boy and, understandably, he wanted to stay close to home—which meant that Botti wasn't perhaps completely honest with Kilson about his offer.

"I lied and said whatever I could," Botti admits. "I call it the Gilligan's Island con—I basically said whatever I could to kind of calm his fears that this was going to be an incredible experience, we would get to be with Sting, etc., etc. There would be beautiful venues, we would be throughout Europe, and all that kind of stuff. And it was only going to be three months, I promised him. And here we are nine and half years later."

Because of Botti's passion for the music and an intuition that Kilson could take the band to another level entirely, Botti was willing to bend the truth a bit. And his hunch, as it turns out, was an accurate one. "More than that tour, Billy was the first kind of notion that the show could be so much more than just a jazz show. It could be entertaining and popular, and I hate to use the word because Billy is not pop, but he is so arresting. He is such a fantastic musician. There are a lot of fantastic musicians out there, but he is so much more than that. He is so charismatic. People can't take their eyes off of him. That is something that I've tried to make with all the people in the group, really tried to make it so you would have great, great musicians playing on a really super high level, but they are so much more than that. They are beyond their instruments. Billy is that times a million. That phone call for Billy to join my group has probably done more for my career than anything."

Kilson currently performs almost nightly with Botti, as well as sharing the stage with pianists Billy Childs and Geoffrey Keezer (who share the role), guitarist Leonardo Amuedo and bassist Richie Goods.

Kilson has seen some changes in the band throughout his tenure but still he stays. "I'm the lone ranger here, the only guy to stick it out. I don't know why, but I am still here. At least I can be the guy that keeps the Cheerios on the table," he quips.

Kilson started playing drums at the age of sixteen, an age where many musicians are already seasoned veterans. At sixteen, Billy attended the Maryland Gifted and Talented Institute for High School Students. He then went on to Berklee College of Music, which eventually led to gigs with Donald Byrd, Ahmad Jamal, Dianne Reeves, Dave Holland, and, since 2004, his current gig with Botti.


According to bassist Goods, "Billy has been here the longest, and that in and of itself is a testament to what kind of person he is to be able to stay and deal with personalities for nine plus years. Billy is the spark of the band. From beat one, he gives one-hundred percent for the whole show every night, without exception. Although he stands out, he is really a team player."

Goods continues, "Billy is definitely our big brother. Mark Whitfield (former guitarist with the band) used to call him 'Big Bruh.' I do as well sometimes and I also call him 'Sensei.' He taught me how to keep the gig. I would and still do call him for advice. At times he will pull me aside and tell me what or what not to do or how to act in a situation. We really are like a family. We look out for each other."

Kilson's laid-back attitude is something his fellow band mates appreciate. Keezer says, "Billy is a very quiet and calm individual offstage, and he mostly keeps to himself. Not anti-social by any means, but he doesn't get involved too deeply in the day-to-day B.S."

The pianist continues, "Billy is a consummate professional in every sense of the word—he brings to the table not only his talent, but the highest level of professionalism and musicality that only comes from experience. This includes a great work ethic and super cool, easy-going attitude—and a willingness to try anything."

Guitarist Whitfield agrees, "Kilson is a consummate performer. His calm and quiet offstage demeanor would surprise anyone who's ever seen him perform." Whitfield says the one thing he admires most about Kilson is his discipline.
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