The Jazzcat

An interview with Billy Childs on his brand new disc "LYRIC"!

by on Nov.26, 2005, under News, Radio


I had an opportunity to spend some personal time with the

great pianist and composer Billy Childs. He has a brand new album called

“Lyric” which features music from his Chamber group. Billy is and has always

been an identifiable force in the music, always foraging ahead in new

directions and never settling mediocrity. His firm commitment to wonderful

imaginative explorations continues to produce quality projects that keep us

floating in surreal dreams leading us with love down the path to ourselves!


LD: Whenever I hear

your music, there is something that is distinctively Billy Childs. How is it that people recognize your signature?


Billy: I don’t

know.  You develop a sound over

years.  I’ve been playing, like, 30

years.  After a while certain things

appeal to you, certain know, I don’t

know, it’s hard to describe what my sound is technically.


LD: I can’t tell you

exactly what it is until I hear it myself. I recognize it, but do you recognize

a sound that’s your own?



Billy: You know,

not really.  It’s like looking at

yourself in a mirror from another angle. 

All of a sudden, you see somebody you don’t recognize.  So that’s kind of the way it is.


I was doing this thing for Chris Botti, for his video.  We did a shoot in Capitol Records.  I got a chance to really see what I look

like.  This was the first time I actually

saw myself from a lot of different angles, what I look like playing.  I like the way my hands look.  I don’t like the way my head looks.  I was telling my son, when he’s playing, to

sit up.  Then I see myself….  My neck’s all crammed forward, but Bill Evans

neck was crammed forward, too, so I guess it’s okay. 


As a child I played basketball.  In fact, I fancied myself a basketball

player….  But then, my parents sent me

to this boarding school for boys called “Midland,”

which is the name of my first CD.  And so,

out of sheer boredom, I started to play, actually from listening to Emerson,

Lake & Palmer stuff.  They had this

song called “Tarkus.”


Billy Starts playing…

LD: That’s lunacy music, right there!


Billy: Definite

influence of Keith Emerson is in a lot of my compositions.  He has a real triadic thing that he does and

I copped a lot of that.  Just the counterpoint,

you know.


LD: What is it that inspires

you to write such dramatic movements in your music?


Billy: Because of

the era I grew up in listening to music. I gravitated towards, the music that

influenced me when I was an impressionable age, like 13, 14, 15. This was music

that sought to solve the problems of the world. 

This music was highly ambitious, highly dramatic and emotional and it

kind of relates to me, like, to romanticism in the classical era. Like Wagner

trying to write a five hour long opera that includes every element and he’s

scripting the opera, wanting to deal with the acting in it and all of

things.  The point being, he was trying

to create large works that spoke to universal problems.  And I thought of the fusion, especially in the

early 70s: Return to Forever, Mwandishi

with Herbie and Headhunters.  And, like,

Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. 

These groups were trying to stretch forms to their logical conclusion

and incorporate electronic music in a way that made the music more dramatic, more

powerful and potent.  So, this is the

music I grew up listening to.  That’s

kind of what my concept is when I write.


LD: In the 70s there

was all this electronic music and all this fusion. I don’t know where I was in

the 70s.  As I spend more time with the

music, Duke said there was only good and bad. 

I say, good, bad and extraordinary. 

I like the people who actually stretch out.


Billy: Well,

there’s a lot of jazz that’s good, like you said, especially the way that the

educational system is turning out really good players.  There’s a lot more ways of learning how to

play jazz.   So, a lot of time is spent

on the technical thing.  But what you

miss in a classroom situation is that connection, like when you learn in the

oral tradition. Like a guy having you on his band and telling you what to do

and what not to do.  What you gain there

is not systemized; you learn more in your bones.  You internalize the music more and you make

the music serve what you want to express more, rather than playing, like, what

you learned.

I guess you can play the same tune looking at a chart, but

if you’re in a band and playing the same tune, you’re playing the notes, but it

has a whole different feel.And that’s in a rehearsal, and then you go on stage and it

has an even other feel.

LD: And then the audience feeds you and that

would be a whole other feel.  It would be

nice if the audience was participating.

 Billy: Yeah.

 LD: “In Carson’s Eyes”, It sounds like there’s so much

energy and wonder and dynamic in this song. You must see such a bright and

adventurous future for your son, Carson.


Billy: I hope

so.  He has a lot going on his head.  He’s 9 now. You know, when he was born, he

had these incredible eyes, these really big eyes, like saucers.  And they’re like windows, you know, so I just

wrote a song called “In Carson’s Eyes.” 

It seemed like a whole lot was going on in Carson’s

eyes.  So I wrote this song. 

LD: When you write, is

there a parallel universe that exists where all things are possible?


Billy: I guess.  I laughed at first when you said “parallel

universe,” but that’s kind of an accurate way of looking at what I try and get

into when I write music.  I try to depict

what I’m trying to express in a language that has no words but paints pictures.

Maybe the picture I’m painting is trying to be more perfect than the picture

that already exists in the real world, you know.

LD: What is the

essence behind Chamber music? I found myself enjoying the experience of the

music and it wasn’t until I heard the violins that the stigma of labeling it

classical popped into my head.


Billy: It’s

interesting you should say that because for a lot of people, there are certain

instruments that indicate an idiom.  For

instance, if you’re coming from a jazz space when you hear, (Billy plays an

improvisation on the piano), or any type of listener, when you hear a violin,

you think classical, when you hear a harp you think classical.  If you hear an oboe you think classical or a

clarinet, bassoon.  But there’s a stigma attached

to a lot of instruments.  So when you hear

a drum set, you may think jazz or pop or something.  When you hear saxophone, you think jazz or

pop.  So, a lot of the music that I’ve

been dealing with gets into this question of: What is chamber music?  What is jazz? 

What is classical music?  As far

as I’m concerned, the fewer the labels the better.

LD: People who listen to music feel they have

to have some category to go to in order to find the music.  How does this album fall into that?


Billy: It doesn’t

really. I never really paid attention to what the music would end up being

called.  I mean, if you look at an atlas,

you have the state of California,

the state of Nevada and the state

of Oregon. You see these lines

that give you the shaped of California,

but if you drive to that point, there’s no line, there’s just the land. These

lines are imposed by man so that we can differentiate one state from another. The

line doesn’t exist except if you see a “Welcome to California

sign” so, that’s how I look at music. 

 LD: That’s a beautiful way to look at music. I

realized that the best way to enjoy the beauty of this music is to listen to

the album in its entirety with it being the primary focus.


Billy: Well,

yeah.  I believe the most rewarding

experience, at least for me, as a listener is active listening rather than

passive.  You know listening calls upon

you to use your own imagination while listening to the music. It can be more

rewarding than passive listening where you’re sitting in front of a TV set and

it’s telling you what to think and what to feel. They even have laugh tracks to

tell you when something’s funny.  My

music requires active listening and I feel like that’s much more rewarding.

LD: It definitely does.  And I’m all about big ears and active

listening, you know. One of the

tunes is called “The Old Man Tells His Story” but each piece tells a story so

does that mean you are the old man?


Billy: No, uh,

not yet.  No, actually, I was thinking of

just two old men.  There’s a song by Paul

Simon called “Old Friends” and it gives this really strong image of these two

old men who are friends, you know, and one of the lines was “sat on a park

bench like bookends.”  And for some

reason, that conjured up in my mind the image of two men sitting in Central

Park, you know, kind of like sparring with each other, talking

about their life, you know and what it has been.  So, maybe a young person comes along and the

old men start telling him stories about what it was like when they grew up,

when they were young.

 LD: Each piece seems to relate to some aspect

of your life.


Billy: Or someone

whose life I’m just imagining, you know–a time or a place that I’m imagining.  But I’m glad that you got the story telling

aspect out of the music.  That’s what I’m

trying to convey.  That’s what I feel:

music should tell stories.  I mean, the

music that has affected me the most told me a story and had emotional peaks and

valleys and things that heightened the drama. 

The drama of life was exemplified through the music.  That’s what I’m trying to do.

LD: With all that we have to go through in the

world today, how do you anticipate people coming to your music and having the

clear mind to hear and appreciate its many meanings?


Billy: Well, I

would hope that the music creates a space and a place for people to go to visit

and just feel better about life.  I mean,

this music is pretty. Much of my impression about the world and what I find

beautiful about the world, what we find beautiful about the world — the whole

group — you know.  And this is kind of

the musical version of that and I hope people…when they listen to my music

can come to a place of serenity, can come to a place of hope and optimism and

beauty.  That’s what I’m trying to….

 LD: There is one

cover on the album, “Scarborough Fair,” and I did not even pick up on that

until ¾ of the tune was over.


Billy: There’s

like a big introduction.  I do….  (Billy starts to play)  Then you hear… (Billy plays again)  The triadic things.  You know, it’s like…  (Billy plays once more)  His April Touch, you know?  There’s the triadic stuff.  That’s what I’ve been into lately.  They’re three-note chords played together as

a chord.  Usually triads are thought of

as like chords that are major or minor, but it could also be chordal triads —

any three-note chord, basically.

LD: Exactly 3 minutes

into “Quintessence” you, Brian Blade, and Scott Coley just dropped into this

deep trio thing that really struck some serious jazz chords in me. It made me

exhale and melt into my seat.


Billy: It was the

solo section.  That’s one of the parts in

the song where it just goes to a simple, idiomatic jazz ballad vibe there. The

rest of the song has a lot of counterpoint. 

It has strings coming in and out and a lot of through-composed stuff,

but then when we get to a solo section we just go over the changes in a jazz



LD: If “Lyric” was a

movie, who would its star and what role would they be playing?



Billy: Wow.   I don’t know.   I love Meryl Streep.  I love Denzel Washington.  I don’t know what the story would be?  I saw Denzel Washington in “John Q.”  That was some of the best acting I’ve ever

seen.  I was fighting back tears?

I don’t know what the movie would be about?  But Denzel Washington in “John Q” and

“Glory”.  And Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s

Choice”.  Also, Candy Alexander, did you

ever see “The Corner?”  Her performance

is unbelievable.  She’d be another person

I’d like to star in “Lyric.”


 LeRoy Downs



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