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Billy Childs: Well-composed

Pianist talks about his new CD ‘Acceptance’ and his hope for the future of live jazz

Scott Haas
Billy Childs: Well-composed
Billy Childs PHOTO: RAJ NAIK

Billy Childs, based in Los Angeles and usually found teaching at the Berklee College of Music each fall, has a new CD, “Acceptance,” out on Aug. 28, that is well-timed for the current crisis. Building upon decades of work as a composer and pianist, Childs brings in vocals and creates arrangements that defy genre. His previous CD, “Rebirth,” released in 2017, won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, and the personnel on that recording are also on “Acceptance,” including Steve Wilson (saxophones), Hans Glawischnig (bass), and Eric Harland (drums), as well as vocalists Alicia Olatuja, Aubrey Johnson and Sara Gazarek. The Banner caught up with Childs from his home in L.A.

Acceptance is a theme on your new CD. What do you mean by acceptance?

2020 is kind of a tough year! I’ve already thrown it away in my mind and am looking to 2021. So acceptance, especially as you get older, is a way to survive. It means moving forward. In the liner notes of the CD, I explain that as I get older and live more life, the adage about accepting the things you cannot change becomes truer. Relationships change or end altogether, friends pass away or become ill. These challenges are often rather emotionally wrenching and grief inducing. Yet, the final stage in the five stages of grief is acceptance, which is the place you must end up at if you want to mentally survive. Also, I want to make the distinction between acceptance and resignation. Resignation implies that you are giving up, that you have no power in the matter, that you have resigned yourself to a disagreeable situation. Acceptance, to me, means that you have not let the situation have power over you — that you have faced it head-on and have chosen to move past it. 

Jazz and classical music are terms that can be divisive. How do you see these categories or genres? 

I say that classical music is European music, and to say that American music is jazz is an improper way of naming the music. Jazz is relevant to the time it’s in, from bebop to swing to modern to cool to the avant-garde. There are so many different variations. And whether it’s European music with violins, harps and bassoons, or American music with drums and saxophone, what matters is the dramatic impact on the listener — no matter the genre.

Your music is indefinable because you bring in sounds, such as vocals, and arrangements that are not easily categorized. What’s that about?

I don’t set out to make a statement with my music. I try to envision a scenario, some picture, and I create the music that is necessary for me to do that. The genre or category are the furthest things from my mind. The important thing is to have an impact on the listener.

Your integration of singers in your music is unique. Tell us about the vocals.

The human voice is the first instrument. I can’t sing. I don’t sing. I don’t have a beautiful voice. But I love working with singers that share my sensibilities, who are ambitious and visionary in their aims and goals, and not just content to remain in a safe, comfortable box. Like Diana Reeves, with whom I’ve worked a lot. I consider her a soulmate. Or my CD of Laura Nyro songs — she defied boundaries in her music and covered a lot of genres. Nyro was a huge influence on me. I had a lot of different singers on the CD I did of her songs, and they captured the moods like chapters in a book.

No one knows the future of live jazz, but what’s your view?

I can’t predict the future, but I’m acting as if things will return to the way things were with clubs and concerts. To experience music live. To have music via Zoom is to experience it in two dimensions. So I’m just going to act as if we will be returning to where we were at before 2020. People’s fears will have to be removed. Look, I’m going to act with caution, but I hope to act as we did before — to fully enjoy music. Not to be afraid of everyone.

Finally, please say a few words about your connection to Boston.

I’m a visiting professor at Berklee every September, until the pandemic hit. I teach theory and composition and have a lot of friends in Boston. I also teach master classes in piano and composition, head an ensemble and participate in faculty discussions. This year? Zoom.

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