Active Listening with Billy Childs
I have been listening to Californian pianist, Billy Childs, for many years, initially through his partnership on many of the recordings of singer, Dianne Reeves. A solid citizen of the post-bop piano tradition (his blowing scissors were certainly sharpened in Freddie Hubbard's group in the late seventies) it is when Childs is in the driving seat for his own work that we see a passion for composition that seems a gloriously meshed feast of chamber textures echoing Debussy and Ravel. The improvising gene is there of course, as well as the time-playing propulsion of a Brian Blade or an Antonio Sanchez on drums. Childs visits Europe for a tour that takes in Vienna, Switzerland and the bohemian and clubby Duc des Lombards in Paris. He stops off at Ronnie Scott's on Monday 14th November as part of the festival. I asked him what we could expect to hear at the London club.
"This is the second time I've brought a group to Europe, the first being the North Sea Jazz Festival some time ago...and I'm pleased to have the brilliant Tim Garland. We'll be playing stuff from "Autumn In Moving Pictures" and "Lyric. Jazz Chamber Music Volume One".
"Autumn" is a filmic collection of nature inspired pieces, also featuring The Ying String Quartet, alongside Bob Shepherd on alto, soprano and clarinet and the extraordinary drummer, Brian Blade, who like Billy, flourishes where orchestral and jazz can lock horns. Is he aware of the uniqueness of his work? He talks of "active listening, where the music is intended for the people to really enjoy, and whatever image is conjured up in the mind is cool! Everyone thinks differently about autumn. Living in southern California and not having seasons, then going to New England made me want to illustrate the billowing clouds, the trees, a path"
"Path Among the Trees" is a chase-like composition perfectly illustrating Childs' love of the great string quartets of the early 20th century. Debussy and Ravel included but also Paul Hindemith and, I thought I could hear Michael Tippett in there too. He told me Tippett would often come to tutor at USC. Was he looking forward to playing the material (albeit without the string quartet, but certainly with his old friend, Carol Robbins on harp...listen to the Prelude In E Minor on the album for an almost eerie oneness made by harp and piano. Brilliant) at Ronnie Scott's?
"I get excited by the concert hall and the club dates. It's just, well, playing music! I've played Ronnie's a few times. In 1978, with Freddie Hubbard, who I spent six years working with." An extraordinary character, one and off the stand? "There's been a lot of talk about how flawed he was, how he was a womaniser and a druggie, but he was oddly paternal with me, curbing his behaviour. But then he'd lash out like an alcoholic parent."
The writer, Renato Wardle, said of Childs that he "shows that music is music" and I asked him about this. "I like to think that European classical music and American jazz become the same thing. I see a connection between the two prisms of chamber music, and it's not a new idea to fuse together different disciplines. It's important to make sure that each person who represents whatever discipline is in line with whatever they've done through the centuries. Writing in line with Beethoven, I like the string players to feel natural, just like the jazz people do." And does it all come together naturally? Does it indeed swing? "Well, we all need to agree on the concept of time. For classical musicians, one is one. There has to be agreement."
We spoke of our first meeting. I had a recording date in New York at Avatar studios. I had asked him to play on my album, "A World Still Turning", produced by Todd Barkan. It was a motley ragbag of contemporary songs, with a few oldies thrown in. I could think of no better pianist. The session was an inspiration. Billy was a gent and the quiet fire and astonishing, soulful flights of improvising made me sing differently. I like that.
Billy Childs plays Ronnie Scott's Monday 14th November as part of The London Jazz Festival. Billy Childs, piano. Tim Garland, saxophone. Carol Robbins, harp. Larry Koonse, guitar. Hamilton Price, bass. Brian Blade, drums.
"Autumn In Moving Pictures" (2010) is out now.