The Music of Billy Childs – Influences and Inspiration

“I’ve always gravitated towards music that tells a story.”

Billy Childs

Billy Childs

Billy Childs has played piano with some of the best in the business, from his beginnings as a working musician with J.J. Johnson and Freddie Hubbard all the way to one of his current recurring gigs, touring and recording with renowned trumpet player Chris Botti.  His piano artistry is at the heart of the Billy Childs Ensemble, his core group of musicians on his Grammy Award-winning Lyric — Jazz-Chamber Music Vol 1 and his 2011 Grammy-nominated Autumn: In Moving Pictures — Jazz-Chamber Music Volume 2 ArtistShare CDs.

As important as Childs’ virtuosic musicianship is to his own success and that of his collaborators, it’s just one part of his identity as an artist. Billy Childs is very much in demand as a composer and arranger and his compositions form the heart of his jazz-chamber music albums. Billy talked with me about the influences and inspiration that go into his compositions, and their ultimate goal.

“I’ve always loved composing and I’ve pretty much always looked at myself as a composer as well as a pianist.  I composed my first real piece of music when I was 16 or 17 .  It was something that I just all of a sudden discovered, ‘Wow, I like doing this, and it makes sense to me, how to do this.’

“I guess that the music of the late 60’s and early 70’s was highly influential on my concept as a musical voice.  The fusion era – Return To Forever; Weather Report; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; Gentle Giant.

“Allan Holdsworth was another icon who kind of had a profound influence on me.  I was intrigued by his harmonic sense, which is one of the most sophisticated systems I’ve ever checked out.

“It was an era where you had rock connecting with classical music, jazz merging with funk, Indian music combined with rock — an era of, perhaps, unprecedented inter-genre respect and tolerance. This informs my music to this day, and has inspired my desire to organically bring together classical music and jazz.”

“The compositional process that I use — and ultimately, what inspires me — depends on the composition, or rather, the intent of the composition.  Sometimes I find it necessary to look inward, in order to express some sort of inner darkness or deeply buried emotion.  Sometimes it’s the external world that inspires me — things in nature.  Trying to recreate a beautiful natural scenario in music, just as French Impressionism does.

“When it comes to melody — a component of the music that I feel is of the utmost importance — I wait for it to come to me.  A beautiful melody, like a beautifully constructed sentence, is something that I cannot manufacture or rush.  It has to come from the soul and, I believe, it makes itself evident.  To me, it is a skill that cannot be taught in a classroom; it’s definitely the most difficult aspect of composing.

“The main goal for me is always to make a dramatic statement with my music, one that will make the listener feel the drama and have it relate to his or her own experience.”

Next – from “Lunacy” to the Dorian Wind Quintet to The Calling, Billy Childs talks about his growth and movement towards his jazz-chamber music concept.

Previously – The Music of Billy Childs – Freddie Hubbard Shows the Way


1 Comment

Filed under Billy Childs, Interview, piano

The Music of Billy Childs – Freddie Hubbard Shows the Way

Billy Childs

Billy Childs

Billy Childs is the Grammy Award-winning composer, arranger and pianist responsible for some of the most engaging and enjoyable music on the scene today.   Child’s most recent albums as a leader, Lyric — Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 1 and Autumn: In Moving Pictures — Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 2, both available through ArtistShare, give us deep and rewarding glimpses into his musical world — a place where melody, emotion and collaborative improvisation flourish without limits and beyond genre.

During his eclectic career Billy Childs has composed and arranged for and played and recorded with some of the greatest artists in music, including J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, Jimmy Heath, Art Farmer, Nat Adderly, Allan Holdsworth, Regina Carter, Don Byron, The Dorian Wind Quintet, Dianne Reeves, Chris Botti, Brian Blade, The Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra, The Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Kronos Quartet and many many others.

Recently I had the privilege of talking with Billy about his music and career, and I asked him to go back to the beginning of all these rewarding associations:  how he got his start as a professional musician.

“When I was young, there weren’t a lot of piano players and jazz musicians, really, it wasn’t an institutional academic organization like it is now, where you can get a doctorate in jazz.  There’s like a whole mess of jazz piano players that are really good, but you learn in a laboratory type of classroom environment.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to get gigs, and still under the apprentice-mentor type of scenario that I grew up with.

“My first real jazz gig was with J.J. Johnson. I did a two-week tour with J.J. in Japan. I was like 19, I think. I learned a hell of a lot from that.  J.J. figures importantly in my development as a jazz musician.

“But Freddie Hubbard without question is my main teacher. Freddie essentially taught me how to play jazz. Sometimes when I hear old recordings of me playing with Freddie, I understand the incredible patience that he must have exercised by simply withstanding the youthful comping decisions I made while he was trying to solo.  He taught me how to comp on a very high level, because his soloing was so melodically rich.

“Sometimes when he couldn’t stand it any more, he’d just simply say, ‘Lay out.’  But he was really paternal with me.  I love Freddie, I miss him terribly.”

Next — Billy Childs on composing, arranging, and his musical influences.


Filed under Billy Childs, Interview, piano

The Jason Parker Quartet Shines During Its “Idle Moments”

Some days back, after I blipped Grant Green’s classic “Idle Moments,”  Jason Parker (@1WorkinMusician) let me know his Seattle-based quartet had recorded its own version of this timeless masterpiece on their second full-length CD No More, No Less.

Parker is a busy player on Seattle’s thriving jazz scene, and his blog posts and tweets about making a living as a full-time musician and bandleader have a healthy following.   I was definitely curious:  would The Jason Parker Quartet’s version of “Idle Moments” stand up to a comparison of the original?

Oh, yeah.  The quartet — Parker on trumpet, Josh Rawlings on piano, Evan Flory-Barnes on bass, D’Vonne Lewis  on drums, and special guest Cynthia Mullis on tenor sax — keeps the original’s languidly slow,
no- need-to-be-in-a-hurry pace, and Parker, Mullis, and Rawlings solo beautifully over those classic changes.    Everyone’s ears are open and I especially enjoyed listening to Mullis jump off the riffs Rawlings served up during her solo.  Nice, very nice.   The Jason Parker Quartet gives a respectful nod to the past while making “Idle Moments” its very own.

Check out The Jason Parker Quartet’s “Idle Moments”:

And here’s Grant Green’s original, full-length version:

The Jason Parker Quartet as recorded on No More, No Less:

Jason Parker – trumpet
Josh Rawlings – piano
Evan Flory-Barnes – bass
D’Vonne Lewis – drums
Special guest Cynthis Mullis – tenor sax

Leave a comment

Filed under Blip, Jason Parker, trumpet

Bill Frisell Plays His Way To Common Ground

The Intercontinentals

The Intercontinentals

Bill Frisell, this gentle, genre-bending guitarist who can capture the world’s essence in a song or speak in a voice that is clearly American, extends himself towards us and in the process touches something basic, something existential.   His music is full of the joy of life yet there’s always a hint of sorrow there, too, some echo of our knowledge that nothing lasts forever.

So it is with “Good Old People,” from Bill Frisell’s 2003 album The Intercontinentals. We have melody and pulse, soaring guitars and African rhythm.  Violin and pedal steel are driven by drum and cymbal, calabash and triangle, all played by a truly intercontinental collection of Frisell’s best friends.

“Good Old People” stands on its own just fine as music but like many Frisell creations it’s more than a world-class cut from a world-class album.   “Good Old People” is a vessel for emotions both joyful and melancholy,   a soaring, cascading celebration of life that gets to the essence of what makes Bill Frisell special — his talent for touching the common humanity in all of us.

Listen to this.   No matter where you are, it sounds like home.

Bill Frisell – guitars, bass
Sidiki Camara – calabash, djembe, congas, percussion
Jenny Scheinman – violin
Greg Leisz – pedal steel guitar
Vinicius Cantuaria – guitars, drums, percussion
Christos Govetas – oud, bouzouki

1 Comment

Filed under Bill Frisell, Blip, guitar

Lionel Loueke’s Superstar Support

Photo by Juan-Carlos Hernandez, Geneva, Switzerland

Lionel Loueke

I’ve been trying to figure out why I like Lionel Loueke’s music as much as I do.

Yes, he’s extremely good at what he does.  He has a distinct musical identity, his own particular combination of influences, and dedication to the craft.  He also has his own unique ways of making music. Whether he’s out front doing his own thing during his concerts or on his own records, I know it’s Lionel Loueke speaking to me from the second I hear his guitar, voice, or both.   The man from Benin is known far and wide for his beautifully moving recordings as a leader.

He is a living bridge between Africa and the West, steeped in the music of his childhood and fluent in America’s music, jazz.   But there’s something else.

It turns out I enjoy his work so much because he is the ultimate collaborator.    Even though he has an incredibly distinct style, when he’s working on someone else’s thing he brings just what’s needed for that moment.

Here are a few examples:
Loueke has a long history of collaboration with singer Gretchen Parlato; they’ve worked on each others’ albums for several years now.  On “Within Me,” from Parlato’s album In A Dream, Loueke seems to lay out during the verses and is gently there for the rest of the piece.   He provides rhythmic pulse and emphasis and stays out of the foreground.   His is a perfect, minimalist effort in support of a beautiful voice and lyric.

Magos Herrera, a very talented singer from Mexico by way of New York City, worked with Loueke on her album Distancia. The album’s opening cut, “Reencuentro,” features Loueke as an up-front member of the rhythm section.  He moves into his solo by echoing the last line of Herrera’s chorus and then has a melodic conversation with pianist Aaron Goldberg.   Here Loueke’s efforts are a prominent part of a successful group effort.

Terence Blanchard worked with Loueke on his latest album Choices. “Byus,” the album’s opening cut, features Loueke’s intro under Dr. Cornel West’s spoken words and his solo over  the cut’s fade.   In between, Loueke comps beautifully under Walter Smith III and Blanchard’s solos.   This time he gives a little signature Loueke in the beginning and a lot of inventive support for the rest of the cut.

I really appreciate the subtle support Lionel Loueke gives to others on their projects.  To me, his efforts are the very essence of the type of collaboration that makes much of today’s jazz so exciting.  Lionel Loueke helps others bring out the best in themselves, and that’s great for jazz fans everywhere.

Photo of Lionel Loueke by Juan-Carlos Hernandez

Lionel Loueke
Lionel Loueke on his technique and influences
Gretchen Parlato
Magos Herrera
Terence Blanchard
Dr. Cornel West

Leave a comment

Filed under guitar, Lionel Loueke

Steve Kuhn’s Passionate Piano



Steve Kuhn is the pianist I turn to when I need unlimited beauty, which means I turn to him quite often.

Kuhn, a former child prodigy on piano with a distinctively strong-yet-tender touch, turned out to be the last pianist John Coltrane had a major working relationship with before McCoy Tyner came on the scene.   Kuhn played with Coltrane for some time, but their work together was never recorded for release.

Steve Kuhn was a late discovery for me.  One night last year I was listening to “Jazz Tonight,” a weeknight jazz show on my local NPR station back at my former home, when I heard Kuhn doing his rendition of John Coltrane’s “I Want To Talk About You” in a trio setting.  Turned out this was a cut from Kuhn’s ECM album Mostly Coltrane, a tribute to Kuhn’s former boss made up largely of Coltrane compositions.  This deeply moving performance inspired me to buy several of Kuhn’s piano trio albums.  I’ve been spreading the word about him ever since.

“My Buddy,” with Eddie Gomez on bass and Billy Drummond on drums, is classic Steve Kuhn — melodic, deeply rhythmic, lush and crystalline at the same time.

Steve Kuhn
John Coltrane
McCoy Tyner
Eddie Gomez
Billy Drummond

Leave a comment

Filed under piano, Steve Kuhn, trio

A Native Son Lifts the First City of Jazz



Last September, while New Orleans native and award-winning jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard was out touring in support of his latest album Choices, he and his group stopped by for a visit to the  Tavis Smiley Show. They played two selections from the album: the title track and “A New World,” a performance you can catch further on in this post.

This wasn’t just another promotional talk show appearance in support of a musician’s latest album.  Blanchard is one our greatest proponents of jazz.  He’s both a link to tradition and a vital teacher and leader by example for up-and-coming players as jazz moves towards its future.   Blanchard often uses his music to make important statements on the issues of the day.   Tavis Smiley has always been a strong promoter of jazz and jazz musicians and is known to use the art of the interview as a tool for social enlightenment.   This segment gives us a glimpse at how jazz can invigorate social commentary and how the infusion of social commentary into jazz music can drive jazz long into the future.

Smiley’s  interview with Blanchard takes us from Blanchard’s New Orleans upbringing through his personal and professional reactions to hurricane Katrina and into his latest album Choices, where he uses the spontaneous spoken words of Dr. Cornel West to inspire his music and inform his audience.  West implores us to lead lives of courage, compassion, and service, and now his message has a novel way of reaching an audience — through Blanchard’s recordings and performances.

Choices is just the latest in a long line of Blanchard’s socially-conscious endeavors, many centered on his home town of New Orleans.   He placed his sorrow, rage, beautiful score and performances into long-time collaborator Spike Lee’s documentary on New Orleans after Katrina,  When the Levees Broke – A Requiem In Four Acts. Blanchard has scored all of Lee’s films since 1991.

He’s also the artistic director of and teaches master classes for the  Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which recently moved from its first home at the University of Southern California to Loyola University in New Orleans.  The Institute is a big part of New Orleans’ ongoing rebirth and resurrection post-Katrina.

As a jazz fan, I’m really excited to see and hear Blanchard teaching, hiring, and inspiring the next generations of jazz musicians.   And I’m thrilled to see him collaborating with Dr. Cornel West as well as Spike Lee, because merging jazz and social commentary might well serve to revitalize the music and keep it healthy.

Watch and listen to Terence Blanchard and just four of the musicians he’s hired and inspired down the years as they perform “Choices” and “A New World.”

Terence Blanchard Group
Fabian Almazan piano
Brice Winston tenor sax
Michael Olatuja bass
Kendrick Scott drums

The Tavis Smiley Show
4 September 2009
“Choices” and “A New World” 10:04

Leave a comment

Filed under LIVE, PBS, trumpet, video