MJF vet Billy Childs performs a commissioned piece with the Kronos Quartet.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Good things happen when Billy Childs is on the bill at Monterey.
Regularly featured at the Fairgrounds since Tim Jackson was hired as the director of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1992, the pianist/composer is a quadruple threat, a superlative accompanist, a savvy bandleader, a resourceful arranger and visionary composer. He’ll be wearing all four hats on Sunday when he premieres this season’s festival commission “Music For Two Quartets” in the Arena.
“I’m probably one of the world’s bigger Billy Childs fan, as a person, a pianist, composer and arranger,” Jackson says. “Every three years or so, we get some sort of project going. Our first big project was in 1994, an orchestral piece that’s still one of my favorite commissions. I realized it’d been 15 years or so since he did a large scale project, and it seemed like time to revisit that.”
Experiments mixing jazz and European classical music already had a long, albeit mixed track record by the time Billy Childs came of age in the late 1970s. But the Los Angeles-based pianist and composer has put his own stamp on a field that blends jazz’s improvisational imperative with classical music’s rigorous forms. “Two Quartets” features the intrepid Kronos Quartet – the world’s most acclaimed string quartet dedicated to exploring new music – and a jazz combo with ace bassist Scott Colley, saxophone master Steve Wilson and drummer extraordinaire Brian Blade.
“It’s one continuous piece, though it’s in two halves,” says Childs, 53. “The first half is very contrapuntal, slow moving and angular and starts with a canon in the strings that builds to a point where the rhythm section comes in authoritatively.”
Conceptually, the piece flows out of his innovative work with his Jazz Chamber Ensemble, a sextet featuring harp, guitar, reeds, acoustic bass, and the remarkable drummer Antonio Sanchez. Founded in 2002, the group debuted on 2005’s ravishing, three-time Grammy Award-nominated album, Lyric (ArtistShare). On his latest album, 2009’s Autumn: In Moving Pictures (ArtistShare), Childs again takes full advantage of the unusual instrumentation, writing flowing, intricately structured pieces with space for finely calibrated thematic improvisation.
“‘Two Quartets’ is definitely from the same well as that concept,” Childs says. “This desire to merge the genres at an organic level is kind of an extension of what I grew up with in the late ’60s and ’70s, this almost unprecedented era of integration, respect and tolerance in music. People were curious about other forms, so in rock you had Emerson Lake and Palmer combining rock and classical and creating a new form. I found that in terms of orchestration, the chamber medium really works for this voice. A jazz group is essentially a chamber group anyway.”
Born and raised in L.A., Childs gained recognition at 19 when pioneering bebop trombonist J.J. Johnson hired him for a 1976 tour of Japan. The next year Freddie Hubbard recruited Childs for his bristling new acoustic band. The trumpeter was at the height of his prodigious powers, and Childs held his own on a series of blazing live albums featuring a front line with vibes master Bobby Hutcherson and tenor sax maestro Joe Henderson.
As a leader, Childs released a series of lyrical, fusion-tinged albums for Windham Hill Jazz in the 1980s. More recently, he recorded The Child Within (Shanachie) featuring trumpeter Terence Blanchard and bassist Dave Holland, and Bedtime Stories (32Jazz), a gorgeous trio session exploring the music of Herbie Hancock, his primary piano influence. It’s no coincidence that when the seminal jazz/funk band the Headhunters reunited with Hancock to record an album a few years back, it was Childs they hired to handle most of the keyboard duties for the subsequent tour.
When opportunities to record his own albums slowed down, Childs didn’t hurt for work. He collaborated widely with vocalist Dianne Reeves, a partnership that goes back to their early careers, and he continues to tour and record with pop/jazz trumpet star Chris Botti. He decided to create the Jazz Chamber Ensemble in 2002 at a time when he was immersed in the world of chamber music. The concept really came to fruition after he finished a commission for the Dorian Wind Quintet.
“What struck me is they had questions about every measure and every phrase,” Childs says. “What did this mean? How long should they do this or that? So I really had to know why I wrote what I wrote. I started thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if I could take that attention to detail and translate it for a jazz ensemble… and that’s kept me busy for years now.”