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Billy Childs Ensemble: Lyric: Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 1

John Kelman By

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It's a mystery why pianist Billy Childs hasn't received the kind of widespread acceptance from the greater jazz community that he deserves. He's a versatile player with experience in a variety of contexts—mainstream work with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, contemporary post bop with vibraphonist Joe Locke, arranging, orchestrating, and conducting Dianne Reeves' The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan... even pedal-to-the-metal fusion with guitar icon Allan Holdsworth.

Childs is a mature player with the same kind of complex improvisational mind as Brad Mehldau, though he tends toward a less dense delivery. But as fine a pianist as he is, he's perhaps even more remarkable as a writer of long-form works that parallel the kind of highly specific compositional approach used by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. Not that his writing sounds anything like the Pat Metheny Group, but it has the same kind of rich complexity: contrapuntal intertwining of numerous themes and creation of challenging structural foundations over which improvisations can be layered.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Lyric: Jazz Chamber Music Vol. 1. In addition to a core group that includes guitarist Larry Koonse, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Bob Sheppard, harpist Carol Robbins, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Brian Blade, Childs also bundles in a small chamber group with strings, flute, oboe, French horn and bassoon. (Electric bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Marvin "Smitty Smith replace Colley and Blade on a couple of tracks.)

But this is far more than an orchestral jazz outing. On nine extended compositions—all by Childs, with the exception of the traditional "Scarborough Fair —Childs combines his classical background with a firm jazz vernacular, creating a lyrical suite that is eminently accessible despite its finely detailed intricacies. Richly layered and remarkably nuanced, though still light and airy, Childs' writing—like Metheny and Mays'—can go by without a thought. Yet it reveals so much more when paid greater attention, continuing to surprise with new-found elements on every additional listen.

Childs' playing is as exhilarating as ever. While the familiar theme of "Scarborough Fair is introduced gently, it evolves into a lush and complex arpeggiated statement that sets the stage for imaginatively thematic solos from Robbins and Childs. Koonse, another underrated player, plays acoustic guitars only—both nylon and steel-string—and demonstrates a chameleon-like ability throughout.

The elegiac "Goodbye, Friend, dedicated to the late bassist Eric Von Essen, is a melancholy and bittersweet feature for the ubiquitous Colley, whose reach gets broader with every project. Childs' ability to be evocative and deeply emotional without resorting to blatant melodrama makes this—like every composition on the disc—powerful and rewarding while simultaneously subtle and understated.

Even when things heat up, as they do on "Into the Light, where Sheppard delivers a powerful soprano solo, there's never a sense of manipulation. The emotions Childs and his ensemble express on Lyric are pure, honest, and heartfelt, and they come through loud and clear. This recording represents a significant career milestone for Billy Childs.

Lyric, aligned with the ArtistShare imprint, is only available through Billy Childs on the web.


Track Listing: In Carson's Eyes' Goodbye, Friend; Into the Light; Prelude in Bb Major; The Old Man Tells His Story; Hope, in the Face of Despair; Scarborough Fair; Quiescence; American Landscape.

Personnel: Billy Childs: piano; Larry Koonse: nylon-string and steel-string acoustic guitar; Bob Sheppard: soprano sax, alto sax, alto flute, Bb clarinet; Carol Robbins: harp; Scott Colley: acoustic bass (1,2,4-6,8); Brian Blade: drums (1,2,5-8); Jimmy Johnson: electric bass (3,7,9); Marvin

Title: Lyric: Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 1 | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Lunacy Music

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