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Billy Childs: Rebirth

Dan Bilawsky By

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It's been a while since we've heard pianist Billy Childs really dig in. While he certainly hasn't been dormant, reaching tremendous artistic heights in semi-recent times with a pair of highly refined chamber jazz explorations and a much-lauded tribute to Laura Nyro, the Childs of yore—the man that would throw down the gauntlet night after night while in the employ of legends like trumpet titan Freddie Hubbard or trombonist J.J. Johnson—hasn't been heard from in a while. Rebirth brings that part of Childs' past back into view, but it also continues to shine a light on his clarity of expression and his incredible skills in the arranging department. It's punctilious and unpredictably powerful all at once. Believe it or not, you can have it both ways. At least, that is, if you're Billy Childs.

While those aforementioned post-millennial winners were well-staffed affairs—the chamber ensemble projects were chock full or orchestral trappings and the Nyro album had a guest list that ran a mile long—Childs pares things down for this one, running lean in the personnel department. For six of the eight tracks, it's just a quartet at play. Of course, referring to the marshaled forces of Childs, saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Eric Harland as "just a quartet" is akin to referencing the New York Yankees as "just a baseball team." These are heavy hitters that came to play. That fact is made abundantly clear right of the gate on "Backwards Bop," one of three tunes on this program that Childs first recorded in his Windham Hill days in the '80s. It's a bold opening stroke, setting the bar incredibly high with precision unison lines, sharp turns, and powerful solo stands. Glawischnig is like a tightly wound spring, Childs works with an authoritative tone that never dulls or blurs his incredibly articulate touch, Wilson comes off like a shrewd harmonic navigator, and Harland puts his monumental chops to good use. It's the perfect example of how to hook the ear from the start.

The pair of guest-enhanced tracks—one a unique yet stylistically congruent follow-up to "Backwards Bop" with appearances from trombonist Ido Meshulam, percussionist Rogerio Boccato, and vocalist Claudia Acuna, and the other a ballad with vocalist Alicia Olatuja in the spotlight—both immediately follow that slam dunk of an opener. Acuña co-wrote the title track, a piece that benefits greatly from her inimitable wordless vocals. Harland creates a steadily skittering backdrop that gives the song a nervous energy, Wilson's soprano takes to the sky, and Childs scampers around, mixing playfulness and potency in his piano work. "Stay," on the other hand, does just that, giving Olatuja a chance to shine in a mellow musical climate that never really intensifies.

The five remaining numbers are gratifying in so many ways. "Dance Of Shiva," ridiculously intricate in its design, engineering, and realization, features some startlingly fresh statements from Childs and Wilson; "Tightrope" finds all four men moving with lighter steps and listening closely, painting and dancing a varicolored waltz together; "The Starry Night" suggests its title through the dreamiest of piano forewords, skyrockets into the stratosphere with Wilson's soprano acting as the nose cone of the ship, and settles into orbit for solos; and "The Windmills Of Your Mind" glows and burns a deep red, with Childs and company drawing out the most intense flavor notes and emotions buried in the song's structure. Then serenity sets in for the closer—a poetic (piano and saxophone) duo take on Horace Silver's "Peace."

Childs hasn't always put all of his talent cards on the table at once, suppressing one aspect of his artistry in deference to others at times, so it's nice to see that change with Rebirth. He's showing his full hand here—chops, nuance, composing, arranging, and all—and it's a musical royal flush if ever there was one.

Track Listing: Backwards Bop; Rebirth; Stay; Dance Of Shiva; Tightrope; The Starry Night; The Windmills Of Your Mind; Peace.

Personnel: Billy Childs: piano; Steve Wilson: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Hans Glawischnig: acoustic bass; Eric Harland: drums.

Title: Rebirth | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Mack Avenue Records

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