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Billy Childs has more than an armful of diverse talents. As a composer he has received five GRAMMY® Awards and 16 nominations, many for composition and arrangement. Presently in continual demand for symphonic and chamber commissions, he has also innovated a collection of compositions for jazz instrumentation and strings that is unique in the American music lexicon: a genre he refers to as jazz/chamber music. His second Mack Avenue release, Acceptance, though is not about that but rather as leader of a small combo playing piano for his jazz compositions. His small ensemble, of course, has large stars – saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Eric Harland.
Childs’ numerous awards and most recently Rebirth, Childs’ 2017 album on Mack Avenue which won a GRAMMY® Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album), have set a high bar. Accordingly, Childs augments this stellar quartet with esteemed guests: Elena Pinderhughes on flute; vocalists Alicia Olatuja, Aubrey Johnson and Sara Gazarek; and percussionists Rogerio Boccato and Munyungo Jackson. Most of these guests, especially Pinderhughes (Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, Kandace Springs, Herbie Hancock) figure prominently in the Brazilian opener, “Dori,” a samba, utilizing Baião and Partido Alto rhythms. Childs opens with a Brazilian tune because he’s always connected with that music from early in his life. His parents had records by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz, João Gilberto, and Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66. It is on these recordings that Childs first heard the songs of Brazilian composer Dori Caymmi, with whom he later became close friends.
The rich liner notes point to numerous instances like this because Childs grew up in Los Angeles during the ’60s and ‘70s when Los Angeles’ culture which was rife with musical diversity. (Many would arguably say it remains so today, certainly for Black culture). The title track is rendered solely by the quartet with Wilson’s soprano in the lead for a song about healing, having the maturity to accept loss. This closing statement in the liner description is striking – “That is why the main melody, which is first stated in C minor by the piano, is reprised in C major by the soprano saxophone at the end of Steve’s solo – to symbolize the healing aspect of acceptance.
”Leimert Park” has Childs playing electrically on Rhodes and keyboards to deliver some funk that speaks to the vibrant club scene in that area of L.A. in the ‘90s. Childs composed the tune with The Headhunters, bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark, the innovative and groundbreaking rhythm section on Herbie Hancock’s “Thrust” in the early 70s. It also features Munyungo Jackson adding a great conga pattern that gives the tune an African and urban sound.
“Do You Know My Name?”—a meditation on human trafficking—is a Childs song with lyrics that serves as a centerpiece of sorts for the album. As to the subject matter, Childs was commissioned by two leaders at Michigan State University to deal with the harrowing subject that he knew little about before plowing forward with research. His poem has this opening verse – “Do you know my name?/Have you seen a trace/of the despair/that’s hiding there/behind the mask on my face?” Quite obviously, the mask is not a Covid-19 reference. Alicia Olatuja brilliantly achieves Childs’ objective of illustrating the human anguish caused by this horrific practice. She communicates the silent anguish and pathos of this fictional character. Childs first heard the Gershwin ballad “It Never Entered My Mind” from his close friend, the late Mulgrew Miller, who was playing it, at the time, in a small Glendale club called Clancy’s Crab Shack. Here Childs renders it just with bassist Glawischnig as a respectful ode to his friend.
Childs reprises two legacy pieces, one inspired by a Langston Hughes poem “Quiet Girl,” which Childs recorded on his first album, Take For Example This, the kind of piece that was the genesis for his chamber music concept heard on his first four Windham Hill Jazz albums that are now out of print. Wilson’s soprano (not playing quietly) and Childs’ flowing piano lines are lyrically exceptional on this one. The second, “Twilight is Upon Us,” is quite different with vocalist Aubrey Johnson joining the quartet. The piece has many influences, from Egberto Gismonti to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but the most profound influence was the Pat Metheny Group, specifically Lyle Mays. Childs heard the Pat Metheny Group in 1989 and was stunned at the well-conceived pieces and the tremendous improvisation. Childs set out to explore that connection with the audience which Metheny and Lyle Mays had that night, developing pieces which explored longer forms, with more layered counterpoint and sonic environments. This is one of the first that he wrote. He relates, “… Years later, I was playing at the Jazz Standard in New York, and Aubrey Johnson, who is the featured vocalist on this track, introduced herself as a singer who appreciates my music. Turns out, she’s also Lyle’s niece, so the history of ’Twilight is Upon Us’ comes full circle.”
The closing “Oceana,” is a study in group improvisation that forms a composition. Wilson begins with whale sounds and the group follows to paint a visual image of the sea. As Wilson’s solo evolves, one can picture a group of whales or dolphins in “conversation”, as Childs comps and counters, the rhythm section kicks in for a highly imaginative ride before the group takes in down, exiting quietly but emphatically to an album of gorgeous, well-conceived, highly melodic and beautifully rendered material. Surely Childs’ compositional skills shine but his piano playing is every bit the equal, spurred on by this terrific cast of players.
Read Article: Glide Magazine