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Billy Childs Trio with George Mraz, Billy Hart: Bedtime Stories: A Tribute to Herbie Hancock

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Because Billy Childs employs his composing and arranging skills on a wide and varied front, his activity in writing music in Los Angeles means that he travels seldom and records less often as a pianist than his talent warrants. As this CD testifies, when Childs concentrates on his jazz playing, he exceeds the promise that he showed in his debut as a 19-year-old virtuoso with Freddie Hubbard in 1977. It is an indication of the regard he enjoys among the jazz elite that producer Todd Barkan put Childs together with the formidable rhythm team of bassist George Mraz and drummer Billy Hart. It would be hard to imagine a more compatible combination of artists.

Childs’ long study of Hancock’s compositions and improvisational style take him inside the music’s harmonies. He also understands that rhythm is as important as harmony and melody in the structures of Hancock’s work. Comfortable with that knowledge and secure in his technique, Childs applies his insights to eight Hancock songs that include famous ones (“Dolphin Dance,” “Maiden Voyage,” “Speak Like A Child”) and such less well-known pieces as “Jessica” and the intriguing “Oriental Folk Song.” The swing throughout is never less than compelling, but-like Hancock and Bill Evans-Childs holds his muscularity in reserve, creating rhythmic tension through restraint and perfect note placement. He develops “Speak Like a Child” with understated drama, abetted by the power and precision of Mraz’s bass lines. Four minutes into the track, Hart applies bursts of cymbal sizzle that spring the performance into a new intensity as Childs works single-note lines against the coruscating rhythm. The album contains many moments of equal fascination.

I cannot recall a recent ballad performance more satisfying than this trio’s version of “Jessica,” although their treatments of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and Sting’s “Fragile” come close. The latter two songs may not fit the specification of the album’s subtitle, but they are in the good company of Hancock’s compositions and of three musicians who enhance all of the music.