In response to yesterday’s Rifftides post, music critic Mark Stryker (pictured) of the Detroit Free Press sent a message that included a column he wrote earlier this year. With his permission, we bring it to you.
Very nice piece on Billy Childs’ new album. I’m anxious to hear it. Billy just wrote a Violin Concerto that was premiered by Regina Carter and the Detroit Symphony in January. I wrote a short preview/profile of Billy in advance of the performance. There’s no link, but I’ve copied it below.
By Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press
Pianist and composer Billy Childs’ musical tastes were forged as a teenager in the early ’70s, when musical fusions were as ubiquitous as bell-bottoms. Progressive rockers like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant and Yes covered classical compositions and wrote 20-minute works from a stew of influences. Jazz groups like Weather Report and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever walked an electric-acoustic fault line, creating ambitious marriages of funk, jazz and rock. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony recorded with jazz-rock guitarist John McLaughlin. Leonard Bernstein wrote a mass that had everything in it but the kitchen sink.
“It was an era of inter-genre respect, curiosity and tolerance,” says Childs, 52. “It shaped my desire to mix genres.”
Childs’ fusion aesthetic underscores his new Concerto for Violin written for the Detroit-born jazz star Regina Carter and co-commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. DSO music director Leonard Slatkin will lead the world premiere starting Friday as part of the DSO’s annual Classical Roots celebration of black composers and performers.
An elegy in two movements, the concerto draws its emotional inspiration from the Iraq War and the loss of innocent life. Essentially a classical score, the piece also leaves room for the soloist to improvise in a jazz-inspired idiom.
Childs made his name as a jazz pianist with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, vocalist Dianne Reeves and others, but he has increasingly been defined as a composer for orchestra and chamber ensembles. Since 1992 his résumé has filled with commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dorian Wind Quintet, Los Angeles Master Chorale, American Brass Quintet and others. He won a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship for composition. Childs still works as a pianist, arranger or producer; lately he’s been on the road with pop-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. But the projects closest to his heart are his classical commissions and his Jazz Chamber Ensemble, a sextet with piano, bass, drums, harp, guitar and saxophone (doubling clarinet and flute), augmented at times with strings and winds.
Childs is as comfortable channeling the 20th-Century modernism of Hindemith, Bartok and Stravinsky as he is the contemporary post-bop of Corea and Herbie Hancock. The streams flow together on the 2005 CD “Lyric” by the Jazz Chamber Ensemble. Though some of the music slips into a generic pastoralism, the best works balance perfumed melody, impressionist harmony, detailed counterpoint, intuitive form and improvisation. The 9-minute “Into the Light” unfolds in three sections that suggest a continuous crescendo. Rippling piano provides a ground for singing flute and violin lines, with strings, guitar and harp underneath. There are Ravel-like interludes for string quartet and a piano improvisation over Latin rhythm that ascends to even greater intensity when the ensemble returns with new material.
“A lot of times when people know both classical and jazz worlds really well, when they create it’s either one or the other,” says Carter. “But with Billy’s writing it’s become one. It’s like a bilingual child who has created his own language.”
Carter had been smitten with Childs’ writing for years, dating to a concert she heard in which Reeves and an orchestra performed his arrangements. Carter was struck by his challenging writing for strings and the way he married strong rhythms and grooves with emotion. She asked Childs to write a piece for her, but it took years for him to work it into his busy schedule. Carter and Childs share the same manager, who approached the DSO about commissioning the piece; the work fits seamlessly into Slatkin’s agenda of championing sophisticated fusions of classical and vernacular music. The University of Notre Dame, Oakland East Bay Symphony and Boston Pops are co-commissioners.
Born in Los Angeles, Childs was surrounded by R&B, pop and jazz at home. Piano lessons at age 6 didn’t take, but he became obsessed with the instrument at 14 while attending boarding school. Returning home to finish high school, he began intensive formal study of classical piano, jazz piano, arranging and theory. Heroes as diverse as Corea, Keith Emerson and Hindemith shaped Childs’ desire to work on a broader canvas. So rather than attend an elite jazz school, he studied classical music as a composition major at the University of Southern California. Still, he had enough vocabulary as a jazz pianist to tour briefly with trombonist J.J. Johnson at 19 and start working with Freddie Hubbard a year later.
Stylistic crossbreeding has become viral today, but Childs knows he’s part of a jazz-classical continuum that stretches back at least as far as Scott Joplin’s ragtime opera “Treemonisha.” The line continues through Gershwin and Ravel, mid-century “Third Stream” composers like Gunther Schuller and John Lewis and the fusions of Childs’ youth. “We’re in that tradition, but this is our twist on it,” he says.
“I try to combine the genres at an organic level. I don’t like to ask an instrument to do something that has not traditionally proven to be comfortable. If I use a string quartet, I’m going to write idiomatic string quartet music. If I have a drummer, I’m not going to notate every note for the drummer to play. I try to make it the responsibility of the composition to pull off the marriage. I might have a motif in the string quartet that repeats and then someone will improvise over that. Or I might have a fugue but assign it to the bass, piano, guitar and drum set so drums are intrinsically involved.”
In his earlier works Childs consciously used traditional classical structures like sonata form and theme-and-variation, but now he allows each work to create its own form.
“The hardest part for me — and the most important part — is coming up with really good, strong melodic material. A good melody will draw a listener in and make the piece interesting, and a solid structure will engage the listener for a long period of time.
The staff thanks Mark Stryker for loaning Rifftides his work.