Billy Childs | May 6, 2023 at Dazzle Denver by Geoff Anderson
Sometimes when a musician has so many activities and accolades in different areas, it’s easy to overlook the basic thing, like: the guy can really play! Pianist Billy Childs drove that point home with a sledgehammer Saturday night at Dazzle when he brought his quartet to Denver for a two-set, one-night stand. Stripped down to the essentials of a rhythm section and trumpet player, Childs was free to repeatedly unleash his piano skills and prove that he deserves all that recognition.
Childs is one of the more decorated musicians on the current jazz scene having been nominated for 16 Grammys and winning five. Besides his piano prowess, he’s also widely known for his compositional skills. He’s collected awards for those too including a composers’ award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and two Chamber Music America grants: the Jazz New Works Grant and the Classical Commissioning Grant. His interests range beyond jazz and he has deeply explored the fusion of jazz and classical music and reimagined the works of Laura Nyro.
Childs’ current album is The Winds of Change (Mack Avenue, 2023). For that album, he assembled a quartet that included Scott Colley on bass, Brian Blade on drums and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet. Those players didn’t join Childs on his tour, but he recreated the group with an equally worthy collective: Hans Glawischnig on bass, Christian Euman on drums, and Sean Jones on trumpet. The Winds of Change Review
Childs said in a recent radio interview that he had been listening to Kenny Wheeler’s album Gnu High (ECM, 1976) that had nearly the same instrumentation. Besides Wheeler on flugelhorn, Keith Jarrett appeared on piano, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Despite the fact that the album is nearly 50 years old, it has recently garnered renewed attention in part due to ECM’s reissue of the record in April 2023 on vinyl.
One of the aspects of Gnu High that no doubt caught Childs’ ear was the group improvisations. While the tunes Saturday night (mostly composed by Childs) were highly arranged, he and the band left plenty of space not only for improvising soloists but also for some of that group improvising.
Obviously, to make this sort of intricate musical conversation work, the musicians must not only be highly skilled in general, but also good listeners and sympathetic to the spontaneous creations of their bandmates. The band Saturday night qualified on both counts and therefore succeeded nicely. As the only horn player, Jones was a natural focal point, and his impeccable tone and free flowing creativity clearly commanded attention. The rhythm section of Glawischnig and Euman dug in for some subtle bop underpinnings when necessary and dished out the rhythmic complexity when called for, either in an arranged part or with some of that simultaneous soloing. It’s tricky to play like this and still retain a sense of organization, but this ensemble could do it and make it seem effortless. On most of the tunes, the main theme would fade in and out and either gradually or suddenly appear at any time.
Saturday night at Dazzle, Childs and his compatriots played several tunes from the new album. The lead-off track from the disc was also the opener of the concert: “The Great Western Loop” which Childs explained is a mega hiking trail extending for about 7,000 miles beginning in southern California near the Mexican border, heading north to the Canadian border and then looping south again to the southern U.S. border. Childs didn’t claim to have hiked it and indicated that maybe only two people have accomplished the feat.
The concert setlist followed the CD sequencing with the title track, “The Winds of Change” up next, followed by “The End of Innocence.” The latter was particularly melodic and when Child quoted “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” during his solo, it became apparent where some of his inspiration came from. When he introduced the tune, he acknowledged that an overt influence on this one was Herbie Hancock’s “Speak Like a Child.”
Saturday night at Dazzle, Childs showed why he deserves all those awards, but more than that, he demonstrated that he can assemble a great band and put on an evening of highly entertaining, sophisticated music that can be matched by few others.
The Great Western Loop
The Winds of Change
The End of Innocence
Golfinho, piano solo
The Black Angel