Billy Childs Prepares ‘Rebirth’ for Mack Avenue

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Billy Childs

(Photo: Raj Naik)

Grammy-winning pianist Billy Childs will release his next album, Rebirth, on the Mack Avenue label on March 24. Among the collaborators on the album are Steve Wilson, Hans Glawischnig, Eric Harland, Alicia Olatuja, Claudia Acuña, Ido Meshulam and Rogerio Boccato.

Childs has won acclaim as a bandleader, arranger and composer, but the new album will emphasize his exceptional skills as a pianist.

At his musical core, Childs is an improvising pianist. The wide-ranging vocabulary on the taut track “Tightrope” nods to Childs’ love of classical music.

A Los Angeles native, Childs grew up in a home hearing his parents’ diverse music collection, which included Bach, Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim and the Swingle Singers. As Childs developed, he was deeply touched by the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Laura Nyro, among others.

Three tunes on Rebirth—“Stay,” “Backwards Bop” and “Starry Night”—come from Childs’ Windham Hill tenure of the 1980s. “I did all of those albums on Windham Hill,” Childs said, “and now all of those recordings belong to Sony. None of it is available on iTunes. That’s a shame because those were very important years for me.”

As a young player, Childs developed his chops in the bands of trombonist J.J. Johnson and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (both of whom are in the DownBeat Hall of Fame). While his compositions and orchestrations have taken Childs into a realm that transcends jazz venues, the fact remains that the improvising pianist is largely the product of his tenures as band pianist with those two late masters.

The percussive electricity of “Backwards Bop” and “Dance Of Shiva” taps into that part of his development. “J.J. and Freddie are responsible for the jazz part of my pedigree,” Childs said.

“I learned about comping from Freddie,” he pointed out, “in practical application. That’s where I learned to expand accompanying into creating environments for the soloists. Sometimes it was like: ‘I’ll be green; you be blue.’ You couldn’t listen to him and not know what to play.”

Saxophonist Steve Wilson has a crucial role on Rebirth. “I met Steve in 1995,” Childs recalled, “when we played a tour of Japan with bassist Buster Williams. I didn’t even like the alto at that time, but on the first song where Steve played, I said, ‘Who is this guy? I don’t know what they’re calling modern jazz these days but this is modern jazz!’ I knew I wanted to work with Steve on one of my own projects.”

Vocalist Claudia Acuña, who co-composed the title tune, is another of the album’s stalwarts. Childs produced her 2002 album, Rhythm Of Life; he also arranged it, orchestrated it and played piano on it. “She went out on a limb and entrusted me to produce that album,” Childs said. “My mother was dying and it was an emotional time for me. I did a lot of writing at her deathbed; it was therapeutic. So Claudia and I just decided to call the song ‘Rebirth.’”

Singer Alicia Olatuja sings on the soulful, minor key ballad “Stay,” while Hans Glawischnig takes the nimble pizzicato bass solo on “Tightrope.”

The music on Rebirth evokes the combustible intimacy that Childs experienced in the Hubbard and Johnson bands, and has now instilled into his own ensembles. So is Childs returning to an instrumental posture that he once knew or is he coming to the small ensemble with new perspectives? “A little of both, actually,” he explained. “I’m revisiting some familiar ground with different musical eyes. My playing is more evolved now—influenced by newer musical trends.

“You’re hearing something on this album that I love doing but that I haven’t done a lot of lately: having musical conversations as a member of a group. That’s what I love.”

In addition to winning four Grammy awards, Childs was the recipient of a 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2009).

Childs released his first solo album, Take For Example, This… in 1988, on Windham Hill Jazz Records. It was the first of four critically acclaimed albums on the imprint, culminating with the celebrated Portrait Of A Player in 1993.

Childs’ career has included collaborations, arrangements and productions for other world-renowned artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, The Kronos Quartet, Wynton Marsalis, Sting, Chris Botti and Leonard Slatkin, among others. He has received orchestral commissions from The Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Los Angeles Master Chorale, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and The Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra.

In 2013 he premiered “Enlightened Souls,” a commission from Duke University featuring Dianne Reeves and the Ying Quartet, to commemorate 50 years of African-American students attending the school.

In 2014 Childs released Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro (Sony Masterworks), which was produced by Larry Klein and features Reneé Fleming, Esperanza Spalding, Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin, Rickie Lee Jones, Becca Stevens, Ledisi, Chris Botti, Yo-Yo Ma and Susan Tedeschi.

For more info on Bill Childs, visit his website.



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August 2021
Carla Bley
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