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ANGEL CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL 2009: The Diversification of Billy Childs

"Ruth, I broke a string."
Billy Childs, onstage at the Jazz Bakery (Feb. 2007)


Billy Childs is Los Angeles musical elegance personified. The 52-year-old composer/pianist brings with him to this year’s Angel City Jazz Festival a mountain of accolades, including two 2006 Grammy Awards -- one of them for the intricate, dense epic “Into the Light,” off Jazz-Chamber Music, Vol. 1: Lyric. By the laws of the music biz, music this ambitious wasn't supposed to win major awards. “People are learning that something significant is happening with pianist Billy Childs and his current band,” observed Kirk Silsbee in L.A. Citybeat. “And it's been too long since something of portent - new and distinct - has come out of Southern California jazz.”


Many forget that Childs first confounded expectations as far back as 1988, when his first solo records began appearing on Bill Ackerman’s Windhall Hill label. Child’s four albums of impressionistic fusion (now sadly all out of print) cut not only against the grain of Windham Hill’s own catalog – best known for the New Agey instrumental bromides of George Winston and Yanni – but against the prevailing tide of neo-traditionalism that ran through the jazz world in the 1980s. They were, in a way, the dress rehearsal for what would be the focus of Child’s current creative energies: “the symbiotic synthesis of America’s classical music, jazz, and European classical chamber music.”

Although he cut his teeth in the bands of J.J. Johnson and Freddie Hubbard, Childs began to make his name as a composer of longer, classically oriented works, mainly through commissions for the L.A. Philharmonic, Akron Symphony Orchestra, L.A. Master Chorale and the New Century Chamber Orchestra. “I took that direction because I love composing, but it had the fortuitous effect of opening up another direction for me," Childs told writer Andrew Gilbert. "All these commissions have helped me develop another dimension, to carve out a new concept. Actually, there's nothing new about the marriage between jazz and classical music, but I have my own twist.”

Freddie Hubbard, live in Umbria with Billy Childs, Hadley Caliman, Larry Klein & Carl Burnett (1978)

It was while he was working with the Dorian Quintet that he first began to unlock the riddles of where classical music ended and jazz – America’s “classical music” – began. "What struck me is they had questions about every measure and every phrase," Childs told an interviewer in 2008. "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. So I got interested in the possibilities of a group sound, a chamber sensibility. And I noticed that I had never seen an ensemble with harp, piano, and guitar, three instruments that can all play chords, rhythm, and melody. I started thinking about the possibilities of that sound palette, and that's kept me busy for years now."

Billy Childs Jazz-Chamber Ensemble live in Los Angeles (2007)

For what he has referred to as “his dream band,” Childs peppered his Jazz-Chamber Ensemble with unusual instumentation, played by people who were as much old-time friends as mere collaborators. They've come to include guitarist Larry Koonse, harpist Carol Robbins (whom Childs had known since high school), woodwindist Bob Sheppard, bassist Scott Colley and drummer
Antonio Sanchez."Billy could fill the role of being another great jazz piano player, but he wanted to do something different," Bob Sheppard told the Boston Globe. "He has a vision and a voice, and the sextet is a way he's found to bridge the classical and jazz worlds. It's got this really interesting sound because of the way the harp and guitar intertwine with the basic jazz rhythm section. It's a challenge for me because he has me playing a lot of soaring melodies on flute, soprano, and alto, and I have to navigate these passages that are really subtle, open and transparent."

The Jazz Chamber’s accolades and its two groundbreaking records represent a bit of a triumph of Child’s survivalist skill set. "I have to do music," he told the Los Angeles Times. "But the business is run by people who don't love music or understand it. They only understand how much money they can make off you. So the challenge for me is to see how I can operate in this system, or circumvent it.”


Augmenting Billy and the JCO for this weekend’s ACJF performance are the four bewitching faeries of the Eclipse String Quartet: violinists Sara Parkins and Sarah Thornblade, violist Alma Lisa Fernandez and cellist Maggie Parkins. In its brief existence, the EQ have delivered acoustic interpretations of a wide range of late 20th-century and modern-day composers such as John Zorn, Terry Riley, Felix Mendelssohn, Fred Frith, Phillip Glass, George Gershwin, John King, Jeff Gauthier, Gernot Wolfgang, Mark Feldman and Julia Wolfe, as well as premieres of works by Karla Kilstedt, Zeena Parkins, David Jaffe and Justin Haynes.

Billy Childs homepage

Go here for an inside look into Billy Child's creative process as it unfolds during the creation of Jazz Chamber Music, Vol. 2

Billy Childs interview/performance on NPR’s Studio Sessions

Billy Childs interviewed on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz

Jazz Improv interview with Billy Childs

Billy Childs profile at Wanda’s Picks

AAJ Concert Review of BC Jazz-Chamber Ensemble

AAJ interview with Billy Childs about Lyric: Jazz Chamber Music Vol. 1

Profile of Billy Childs from Robert L. Doerschuk’s book 88

Billy Childs profile in L.A. Times

Billy Childs Interviewed on the e-Factor (4 parts)

Billy Childs & Orchestra Jazz Siciliana live at Teatro Golden (Palermo, Sicily)

Billy Childs with Hamilton Price and Peter Erskine live at the Warner Grand Theater (San Pedro CA)

The Eclipse Quartet live at the Royal Albert Hall, London (2006)

“Father Than That’ (1rst movement) performed by the Robin Cox Ensemble with the Eclipse String Quartet

The Eclipse Quartet plays John Zorn’s “Kol Nidre” live at the Museum of Neon Art (2/06/09)

The Eclipse Quartet plays the 2nd & 3rd movements of John King’s “Lightning Slide” live at the Museum of Neon Art (2/06/09)

The Billy Childs Jazz-Chamber Ensemble with special guests The Eclipse Quartet will play the Angel City Jazz Festival at 8pm on Sun., Sept 6, 2009.

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