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Pianist and composer Billy Childs draws on film noir soundtracks as inspiration for his latest album

Billy Childs
Raj Naik
Billy Childs

Pianist and composer Billy Childs is one of the few musicians who straddle the worlds of jazz and classical music, and still maintain serious cred in both genres. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Childs was a child prodigy who was formally trained in classical music, but who was playing on the bandstand with the likes of J.J. Johnson and Freddie Hubbard before he was legally allowed to drink. And, as he explained in our conversation aboard The Jazz Cruise earlier this year, he was also immersed in the pop music of the day, something he was later able to showcase with his Map to the Treasure album celebrating the music of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro. Signed to Windham Hill Records in 1988, the virtuosic pianist released four critically acclaimed albums for that label. He would go on to record ten more albums for Stretch Shanachie, 32 Jazz, Lunacy, Sony and, most recently, Mack Avenue.

In addition, Childs has been commissioned to write pieces for both orchestras and chamber ensembles, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, The Kronos Quartet, the Dorian Wind Quintet and others. Over the years, he’s received 13 Grammy nominations and five awards. He’s been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award.

His latest album The Winds of Change, to be released March 17 on Mack Avenue, features an all-star group of Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Scott Colley on bass and Brian Blade on drums. Inspired in part by the open playing on Kenny Wheeler’s 1976 ECM album Gnu High as well as by the music soundtracks of film noir, the purely acoustic recording has a modern yet timeless sound relying on melodies both simple and intricate, and rhythms that both float and groove. In Childs’ composing and piano playing on the album one can hear the influence of the Mount Rushmore of 70s jazz piano – Hancock, Corea, Tyner and Jarrett – but also his own very distinctive sound.

Finding a rare quiet spot during The Jazz Cruise, we talked about the new album as well as some of his early inspirations, including one that would likely surprise many people.

NOTE: Childs is performing at Dizzy's in NYC March 9-12.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lee Mergner: You cite the film noir genre as a major inspiration for your writing for this album.  What about that sound resonates with you?

Billy Childs: What resonates with me is when you hear themes like the theme from Chinatown. Or the theme from Taxi Driver. It evokes this mythical view of a city. In the case of Taxi Driver, you have this magical view of New York City that you can only achieve through film, with the smoke coming out of the manholes as he's driving, the lights flashing by. Or the theme from Chinatown with the dry man-made lakes in Los Angeles with Jack Nicholson looking over and across it. It evokes this mood and for me it's very nostalgic and very meaningful. Bernard Hermann did the amazing score for Taxi Driver. He was Hitchcock's guy for many years. Jerry Goldsmith did Chinatown and he did all sorts of stuff. His body of work is varied and convincing in every genre. He was a genius.

I understand that the title track was actually written for Roy Hargrove and what is now the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra.

Yes, it was Jack Elliot and Mitch Glickman who organized it and they commissioned me to write a piece for orchestra and Roy Hargrove, which I did. The rhythm section was Gary Novak, a great drummer, and the late Dave Carpenter, who was a great Los Angeles bass player. And me and the orchestra with Roy. Roy played it so beautifully. I thought it would be a great song to do with Ambrose who has that same warmth in his sound, that same sound that invites the listener in, and kind of wraps itself around you. I reduced the orchestra part to the piano part and also had the rhythm section join in, with Scott [Colley] and Brian [Blade], who are orchestral type players anyway, within the jazz context. So it worked out great.

You watch Brian and it is like watching somebody orchestrate on the drums.

He’s like Ravel is with the orchestra. That's how he is with a drum set in terms of the sophistication and the multiple levels that he orchestrates on. He really understands the emotional connection with each sound that he's producing. Like what is the emotional weight of it, and how it fit. It’s always in service of the composition or in service of the entire group experience.

He's not a showoff drummer, but somehow his technique comes across, like on those Joni Mitchell records which he enhanced by his presence.

I think of Scott the same way. I describe Scott as a spiritual player. That's how he affects me. It's on a spiritual level, in the sense that his playing is about possibilities. It’s about the choices he makes that seem to create other possibilities. It opens doors to new things that could be possible, that could elevate the music. His playing makes you more open and more attuned to the moment.

I read that Kenny Wheeler’s Gnu High album on ECM was also a big influence on the sound of this album. What do you love about that album with Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette?

A very beautiful record. It's a Desert Island Disc for me.

Why? Because of that openness?

Yes, the conversation that happens between these generational masters at the top of their game at that particular point. And Keith Jarrett and his playing. There are not many records where he's a sideman that has to subvert himself to someone else's vision. But the way he weaves his own vision into it is incredible. It's some of the best Keith Jarrett playing that I know of. And the way the songs kind of sing. They have a voice. I wanted to capture that. I felt like I could do it with these three other musicians—Brian Blade, Scott Colley and Ambrose Akinmusire.

You wrote most of the songs on this album. Some jazz people might not know that you are also an accomplished composer of classical pieces for orchestra and other ensembles.  How is your writing for a group like this different in terms of the creative process?

I actually worked the piece that originally was written for Roy into this concept, but I wanted to write less. A lot of my stuff when I write is very structured, very detailed with the composition part. I wanted to write interesting things, but ones that weren't so rigidly detailed that they didn't allow for people to take those ideas and make them their own. These people are among the best at taking complex ideas and making them into their own. I wanted songs that had architecture to them, but I wanted also to be able to take those and twist them and be free with them and see where these peoples take them.

Now I'm remembering that I interviewed you for a piece about writing for classical orchestras, and one of the things you said is that it's a different kind of writing that you have to do for an orchestra than it is for a jazz group.  There isn’t much improvisation there with an orchestra, right?

No, when I write chamber music, but also when I write for orchestra, when you write through composed music, the goal is to make it sound as though it's improvised or spontaneous, like it's emanating from something organically. When you're improvising with master musicians such as Brian Blade, Scott Colley, and Ambrose Akinmusire, a lot of our common goal is to add structure to where there was empty space and to make it sound compositional. There is a kind of paradox. When I write for a concert music situation where people only read music, then I try to consider every layer, so that they can play it, because the more information the better with classical musicians. When you give them enough information to make it sound like they can internalize it, then it becomes magical. Then the spontaneity comes with the interpretation, with how well the composition gets evolved and shaped.

Speaking of great compositions, one of them on the record that you didn’t write was Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence,” a tune made famous by the rendition by Chick and Gary Burton.  I know he was an important influence on you and that you became friendly with him.

Yes, we were very close friends. I wanted to do a song in homage to him. I wanted to do that song because it was more open. He, also like myself, had a bent toward writing complex or complicated stuff. He's a major influence on me compositionally, so I wanted to do something of his that was a thing that we could make our own more easily.

The other tune that was a cover was Kenny Barron's “The Black Angel,” which was the title song for a Freddie Hubbard record from 1970. Freddie was one of your early sideman gigs, right?

Yes, I was, 21 when I joined him. I was 20 when I played with J.J. Johnson. I was lucky early on. But, yes, I played with Freddie and he was a huge influence. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today if it weren't for him. The Black Angel was probably the first jazz album that I heard. That and three other albums were the first. It was The Black Angel, Red Clay [also by Hubbard], Fancy Free by Donald Byrd and The Prisoner by Herbie Hancock. That’s how I was indoctrinated into jazz. I really loved The Black Angel and I loved “Coral Keys” off that album. Later, as I listened to it, I also loved “Spacetrack” and “Gittin’ Down.”

I don't have to tell you, of course, Kenny is a great composer. Did you play that tune with Freddie?

No, I never did. We did a totally different version. I arranged it differently. I arranged it kind of like with this arpeggiated line in the piano that's accompanying the melody. It's a very strong sounding thing as opposed to the way they play it on the Freddie album where it’s very laid back and very kind of fluid sounding, almost like a bossa. The way we do it is kind of like with brimstone and fire.

Freddie certainly had brimstone and fire too, though maybe not on that version. Talk about the inspiration for some of the other songs.

“The Great Western Loop” is one that I wrote. It was just a three-note motif on the piano that I do—da da da [sings]. I wanted something that had a lot of motion because the Great Western Loop is a 7,000-mile hiking range all around like the West Coast—from Mexico, up through California, up through Oregon and Washington into Canada. And then going east and then you come back down through Colorado and New Mexico. Things like that intrigue me. It's almost like Homer's Odyssey, where you're walking miles and miles, hundreds and thousands of miles. I think only two people have done the whole thing, like professional hikers, because you have to know it's gonna be cold and where you know have to know when it's raining. You have to keep up like 30 miles a day or something for a year or so. It’s crazy.

What about “The End of Innocence,” not the Don Henley tune?

“The End of Innocence” is a piece that I had originally recorded back in 1991, on a Windham Hill album called Portrait of a Player and it has that same kind of wistful sound to it that I thought would complement the other songs on this album. It’s a very introspective song with a great solo by Ambrose.

Billy Childs - The End of Innocence (Official Audio)

How did you come across Ambrose, who is from the Bay area?

The first time I met him was at the Monk Institute, now called the Hancock Institute. He took a couple composition lessons from me, and I was like, this “This guy has really got something.” Years later he started teaching at USC and we re-connected. We did a gig at the Blue Whale, now rest in peace, and I was like, “This is one of the best trumpet players I've heard.” It works for me. Just everything about it—how his ideas are connected to his sound in a way that I find really attractive and inviting. I knew I wanted to do an album with him. Because he's a hell of a composer of every style of music—jazz, classical, film music—we’ll talk on the phone a lot, about composition, about composers. We've become really close friends and I said, “I want to do an album with you.” This new high concept came to me and I was like, ”There is no other trumpet player I want to do this with.” That’s how I ended up with him.

He did a Before & After feature with Ashley Kahn for JazzTimes, sort of a needle drop thing. It seemed like he knew every trumpeter play within just a few opening notes or a couple of bars.  He was in his early twenties, so how did he know all these artists? I asked Ashley if he tipped his hand about what he was playing and he said no. To have all the knowledge at such a young age was remarkable.

That wouldn't be me. I don't do those anymore because, number one, I don't like judging people. And, number two, if I get it wrong and I have gotten it wrong and said some condescending things about people who were influences to me… I’m not going to do that again.

I know a lot of musicians who generally don't listen to a lot of other stuff. Do you listen to whatever's out there or do you find yourself just going back to your old catalog?

Lately I haven't been listening a lot because I've been writing so much. Sometimes there can be too much music inside your head, and then you don't need any help from the outside world. But when I get free of stuff, when I get a little more clear of writing assignments, then I like to listen to various stuff.

I like to be turned on to new stuff, especially stuff that is other than the genres that I came up in, like jazz and classical. If I hear some East Indian music that turns me on, I'd love to know about that. if I hear Gamelan music or if I hear mariachi music and it's if great, I want to know about it.

Your record doing the music of Laura Nyro was a great example of that. She was not necessarily an artist that any jazz person would think of.

I don't know about that, because she did records with Richard Davis on bass and Joe Farrell playing oboe. She did stuff with Alice Coltrane. Her stuff was very jazz oriented. That's what was so attractive about it. It was an amalgam of jazz with Broadway musical stuff with Brill building type of songwriting with doo wop and gospel. It was all this mixture, congealed into this organic hole. That's what made her so great. I talked to Christian McBride a lot about Keith Emerson.

Last year, I went record shopping with him in Savannah and he was pulling out Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Keith Emerson actually got me wanting to play piano.


Yes. You're saying that and laughing, and most people do because he did all those stunts with stabbing the organ, dressing up in an armadillo suit and having the piano revolve around him. But, if you can get past that and listen to the actual music that this guy came up with, he was a genius. He wrote music that bridged a gap between classical music and rock in a way. And he infused jazz with it. He also introduced the synthesizer to pop music in a profound way. Keith Emerson's handprints are all over pop music with regard to the synthesizer and the innovations that he did. As a composer, he wrote fugues, he wrote sonatas, he wrote concertos.

On one of his tunes on the first Emerson, Lake and Palmer album called “Barbarian” is actually a piece by Bartok called “Allegro Barbaro.” He’s playing it flawlessly like Vladimir Ashkenazy would play it. There’s more to this guy than the antics that he did in the ‘70s.

The whole prog rock genre, they’re like the godfathers of it in a lot of ways.

I think so. Simultaneously with prog rock is fusion, which is kind of like an American thing. This is the music that I grew up with, like Laura Nyro, Keith Emerson, then of course Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner…the usual suspects of a jazz pianist. But Keith Emerson is really why I'm playing piano, for sure.

We were both lucky to grow up in the ‘70s, when all these music styles could even be played on the same radio station, which would never happen now.

That's another thing. The radio situation now is all categorized. There's the jazz station, there's the classical station, there's the smooth jazz station, there's the rock station, there's the hip hop station. But you’d go to a concert at one time where Laura Nyro was opening for Miles. There was a lot of that at the Fillmore. I saw Rare Earth open for Herbie Hancock. It was all over the map and that was cool.

I'm talking to you here on The Jazz Cruise, which is an amazing sort of an event, because there are about 100 musicians aboard, including more than a dozen great pianists. Late last night I caught you hanging after the shows were over at one of the venues with Benny Green and Tamir Hendelman, gathered around on the piano.

Yeah, that was fun. At one point, Benny had to leave and then Tamir and I got into it even further. We played “I'm Old Fashioned” and other tunes four-handed. That was really fun.

It must be great just to hang with all these guys and also to see them play because you don’t often get to see them.

Right. Yea, it's great. When I first came on board, I'll admit I was a little nervous, because there's all these great piano players. I’ve been writing so much and I hadn't practiced a lot, but then everybody was so nice and in it together. What’s really been great for me has been hanging out with the younger musicians.

Have you had some discoveries that way?

Not so much discoveries, just because I haven't heard a lot so far. But just being around them and their energy and their enthusiasm, and the love they have, the discipline. It's a trip to look at them and see how I was at that age. I was kind of the same way and that's why it's easy for me to fall in with them. Then also to hang with my peers, people like Kenny Washington, Rodney Whitaker and John Clayton and hang with all these people and everybody in between.

Getting back to this project, are you going to do some live dates playing the music?

I would love to do it with this band, but it's really hard, because those guys are working. So it probably won’t be with that band. We’re playing at Dizzy’s in NYC March 9-12 with Ari Hoenig on drums, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Sean Jones on trumpet. I'm doing a gig with Ingrid Jensen also. She'll be playing this book and so I'm looking forward to all of that. And then we're doing some West Coast stuff. There’s a fantastic young drummer, Christian Yeoman whom I play with a lot. He’s from Chicago, but he lives in Los Angeles now. He plays with Jacob Collier a lot, but he also used to play with Kurt Elling and he's a badass.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”