Los Angeles-born and bred, Billy Childs has built a remarkable career as a pianist, composer, and arranger largely away from the New York jazz scene. The child of two teachers, he was classically trained both in high school and at USC, where he studied composition. After early gigs with J.J. Johnson and Freddie Hubbard, Childs went on to lead his own groups and release a dozen albums on the Windham Hill, Stretch, Shanachie and, most recently, Mack Avenue labels, netting 13 Grammy nominations. Artists such as Dianne Reeves and Chris Botti have leaned on his composing and arranging chops. Especially gifted in working with singers and the spoken word, he’s also written numerous large-scale works for classical orchestras and chamber ensembles. Childs’ latest album Acceptance features the same core instrumentalists who were on the Grammy-winning Rebirth from 2018: Steve Wilson (saxophones), Hans Glawischnig (bass), and Eric Harland (drums), along with vocalists Alicia Olatuja, Aubrey Johnson, and Sara Gazarek.
JT: The new album in many ways feels like a continuation of Rebirth; the core band is the same. How did you come to put that band together?
BILLY CHILDS: The first time I played with Steve [Wilson] was with Buster Williams in Japan around 1995 and I was like, “Holy shit.” I didn’t even like alto sax until I started playing with him. I had been playing with a lot of smooth-jazz alto players and I just didn’t like the screaming and so forth. I started playing with him and I was like, “Wow. I love alto sax.” I had a gig at the Jazz Standard maybe eight or nine years ago. The first guys I called [for it] were Eric, Hans, and Steve, and they all said, “Yes.” We played that week at the Standard and it was one of the best weeks I ever played there. I thought, “I have to record an album with these guys.” Years later we recorded Rebirth, which was very successful, and I wanted to continue down that path.
One of the tunes I was taken with, in part because it’s very different sonically from the rest, is “Leimert Park,” named for the area in L.A. that has a unique arts community, including the World Stage, originally founded by Billy Higgins.
Mike Clark, Paul Jackson, and I formed this little group and we went into a studio and recorded, and that was one of the tunes. It was something we just made up and I was like, “This is so fun.” Mike Clark cultivated this way of playing funk that’s been widely imitated, so I wanted Eric to play that style, which he did, which was incredible.
Talk a bit about that scene at the World Stage. How old were you when you hung out there?
I was married with kids and in my forties. But, in the mid-’90s, you’d be going up there on a Saturday night, and there was all this creative energy and activity—poetry readings, jazz stuff, bookstores, coffeehouses, people playing chess, gangs and non-gang people cohabitating and being in an area where there was kind of a safe space. [Drummer] Darryl Moore started this group called the Underground Railroad and I would go there with my Rhodes and we would play and these MCs would come up and rap over it and improvise. Some of them were extraordinary. They would make up stories that had context and meaning and a message and it rhymed and it would be in rhythm, and it was musical. It would be like accompanying a saxophone player. And that had a profound effect on me in terms of figuring out ways to combine poetry with music.
That’s something you’ve done throughout your career, like with “I’ve Known Rivers” using the poetry of Langston Hughes.
That was where I actually put poetry on the page and then you listen to the music. But this gave me a window into how to have a poet performance. I started a group called Prophecy, which is kind of like a Return to Forever or Headhunters, with a poet named Paul Calderón speaking on the top, reminiscent of the Watts Prophets or the Last Poets.
It’s funny, because “Leimert Park” reminded me of growing up around the Philly jazz scene of the late ’70s. A very different time and place but the same sound.
That’s my sound too, because that’s what I used to do in the ’70s. The Rhodes that I’m playing is from the ‘70s. What Mike Clark and Paul Jackson did was indicative of a sound that was cultivated in the ’70s but what it reminded me of was the Leimert Park of the ’90s.
“Do You Know My Name?” was actually part of a bigger piece, right?
Yes, I had been commissioned by Michigan State University to write a piece for their jazz orchestra about human trafficking and I was kind of daunted by that. Because how do I write about a subject that complex? One of the ways that I found to do it was, again, through words. I scoured the internet and found all kinds of poems and essays and looked at videos. I talked to someone who was an advocate for victims when I was in Michigan and, based off those conversations and observations, I devised a poem where a character was a victim of human trafficking. And Alicia Olatuja did a beautiful job interpreting that.
You mention in the liner notes how you were inspired by Pat Metheny on the song “Twilight Is Upon Us.” Is it the way the melody is shared by instruments and vocals?
The harmonies and the melody were not necessarily influenced by Pat Metheny, but the ambition of the song was, the way the solos build and get us from point A to point B. It was more of a structural influence. But harmonically, it was all over the map. Monty Alexander was an influence and the Mahavishnu Orchestra album Apocalypse was an influence. Aubrey Johnson doubling the melody was a last-minute decision in the studio. I thought, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to have a human voice on this melody?” The way it’s mixed sounds kind of alien, to the point where you don’t know if it’s a soprano sax or a voice.
One thing you share with Metheny is that, for all the complexity and depth of your harmonies, compositions, and arranging, you still have a great ear for a melody.
That’s the thing. I believe in music that invites the listener in. If you have a strong melody, then people can relate to it.