January/February 2006

Billy Childs Ensemble
Lunacy Records

Lyric features eight compositions by pianist Billy Childs, plus an arrangement of the traditional "Scarborough Faire." Besides the leader's piano, the ensemble includes the guitars of Larry Koonse, the reeds of Bob Sheppard, the bass of either Scott Colley or Jimmy Johnson and the drums of either Brian Blade or "Smitty" Smith. The level of musicianship, in other words, is high. The other nine players here, on strings, flute, oboe, French horn, bassoon and harp, are not well known in jazz circles, but they are clearly capable.

The problem with Lyric does not lie with any shortcomings of execution but with Childs' limitations as a composer and conceptualist. Everything he writes sounds slightly familiar--not necessarily a problem in itself, but the music vaguely recalled is neither interesting nor compelling. Lyric is all lilting, superficial prettiness, or self-consciously dramatic sentimentality, and the absence of ideas that require attention induces ennui.

No instrument other than Childs' predictable piano gets much space. Yet the only moments when this album comes to life is when others solo. Colley's somber bass is authentically mournful on "Goodbye, Friend." On both "Into the Light" and "Hope, in the Face of Despair," Sheppard's soprano saxophone is an unexpected arrival of hard intelligence.

Originally published in January/February 2006
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