Recent Listening: Billy Childs

Billy Childs, Autumn In Moving Pictures: Jazz Chamber Music, Vol. 2 (artistShare).
There is a long history in jazz of strings in small-group chamber music. In a 1935 concert, Artie Shaw played a piece that he composed for clarinet and string quartet. It brought him attention that helped lead to his first big band. Ralph Burns integrated strings, flute and French horn with his piano, Ray Brown’s bass and Jo Jones’ drums, for his exquisite 1951 collection Free Forms. Later highlights of the genre were Gary McFarland’s album of subtle chamber music with pianist Bill Evans and The October Suite from 1966, with McFarland’s compositions and strings arrangements for pianist Steve Kuhn. Along the way there was distinguished music with small string ensembles by Jack Weeks and Clare Fischer for albums by Cal Tjader, Fischer’s own Songs For Rainy Day Lovers (included in this CD), Manny Albam’s writing for the piano of Hank Jones and the Meridian String Quartet, and violinist Harry Lookofsky’s magnificient 1959 Stringsville with Hank and Elvin Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Paul Chambers.
Add to that distinguished list Autumn In Moving Pictures, the new CD by pianist Billy Childs. Childs is a pianist and composer whose talent far outstrips the recognition he has received for his own work and his associations with Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Yo Yo Ma, Eddie Daniels and a galaxy of other musicians. He melds his rhythm section with saxophone or clarinet, harp, guitar, and, on some pieces, winds and the Ying String Quartet. The album’s nine tracks amount to a suite inspired when Childs found himself amidst the blazing beauty of fall in New England. Knowing of that stimulation, the listener may easily conjure images of turning leaves, crisp air, rainfall and – in the case of a track inspired by a William Carlos Williams poem – a red wheelbarrow.
However, without reference to what they are “about,” Childs’ inventions support themselves by dint of compositional craft and the musicianship of the players. TheThumbnail image for Childs-Autumn.jpg sonorities and harmonic fullness he achieves in blends of the instruments have much in common with French impressionists of the Twentieth century. He dramatically establishes that influence in the opening piece, “The Path Among the Trees,” with Brian Blade’s cymbal splashes and brushes on drums providing urgency, and guitarist Larry Koonse in a handsome solo. Childs’ writing for a passage of the string quartet alone is elegiac, giving way to urgency underscored by the insistency of Blade’s drumming. He uses Carol Robbins’ harp to carry most of the first chorus of the theme of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” before his piano slips in to finish the chorus and he introduces Bob Sheppard’s clarinet, Koonse’s guitar, Scott Colley’s bass and Antonio Sanchez’s drums. He develops a kaleidoscopic treatment that involves solos by individual instruments, combinations of intersecting lines, counterpoint, quick climaxes, changes of tempo and, finally, a peaceful – perhaps autumnal – piano resolution of the theme on a triad.
“Prelude in E-minor” is not Chopin’s, but a composition by Childs that returns to impressionism, with the harp prominent and specific references to Ravel. “A Man Chasing the Horizon” is full of vigor, with Childs bluesy in a section that highlights interaction among him, Sanchez and Colley before the strings and Sheppard enrich the ensemble and raise the intensity. Childs takes full advantage of the harmonic possibilities implicit in the familiar melody of Fauré’s “Pavane.” There is magic in his voicings around the French horn in the piece’s final ensemble. The 16th-note pitter-patter of “Raindrop Patterns” is the purest programmatic expression in the album. In this instance, even not knowing the title, listeners might think of rainfall or, during Sheppard’s impassioned soprano saxophone solo, a storm. “The Red Wheelbarrow” features reflective guitar by Koonse, who shines throughout the CD, as, indeed, do all of the musicians.
The publicity material sent with the album goes to pains to present this music as a successor of the third stream and fusion movements of the second half of the last century. If that marketing approach persuades people to listen to it, there is no harm done. If it drives away listeners put off by those labels, that’s a shame. Childs’ work needs no label. Of the two categories of music defined by Duke Ellington, this falls gloriously in the first: good.
Until this album materialized, I was not aware that Childs had made a Volume 1 of Jazz Chamber Music. It is called Lyric. I look forward to hearing it.

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Comments

  1. says

    Slight error in date regarding the Artie Shaw performance: It happened in 1936, and it was documented:
    “Thus, in one album, we have both the beginning and the end of Mr. Shaw’s career as a leader. In 1936, Mr. Shaw was a busy and successful studio musician, playing as a sideman for radio and recordings, when Joe Helbock, the owner of the Onyx, a hangout for jazz musicians on 52d Street, had the then novel idea of putting on a swing concert at the Imperial Theater. Mr. Shaw, asked to join in a program that included Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra and Bob Crosby’s big band as well as small combos with Bunny Berrigan (sic!), Joe Bushkin and the guitarist Carl Kress, put together a seven-piece group – a string quartet with drums, guitar and his own clarinet – for which he wrote a single piece, ”Interlude in B-flat.” It was the hit of the concert and, as a consequence, within four months Mr. Shaw was leading his first big band at the Hotel Lexington – a swing band built around a swing quartet.
    Today ”Interlude in B-flat” is little more than a curiosity – the cushion of strings under a jazz horn has become commonplace during the ensuing 50 years. But even so, the distinctive sound of Mr. Shaw’s light, glancing clarinet lines, later to be heard flowing warmly through the setting of a big band or cutting through the sharper edges of his Gramercy Five, creates an unusual conjunction with even the limited use of strings that he tried in 1936.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/28/arts/artie-shaw-rarities-come-to-light.html
    I have it on that very LP-album by “Book of the Month”, reviewed here in 1984.