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Billy Childs

Troy Savings Band Music Hall
Troy, NY
January 25, 2008

By J Hunter

Words mean different things to different people, and that can result in unintended consequences. The blocks of empty seats at Billy Childs' Troy Savings bank appearance could have been chalked up to the weather (Freezing temps, lots of wind chill) or to possible walk-ups being distracted by the many facets of Troy's Night Out. I'm afraid the low turnout might have been due to one word -- "Chamber", as in "chamber music." If that's true, not only is it too bad, but it means a lot of people missed out on some truly challenging music.

Not far behind traditionalists' hatred for all things Smooth is their loathing of Third Stream. Gunther Schuller defined Thirds Stream as "a... genre of music halfway between jazz and classical music." It isn't jazz, but it isn't classical, either, and hardcore fans of both genres see it as a dilution of what they love. It's not inconceivable that some jazz fans --scarred by some of the more execrable attempts at Third Stream (Lookin' at you, Claude Bolling!) -- saw "Jazz-Chamber" in TSB's advertising and ran the other way. Or maybe they got as far as the entrance to the concert hall, saw Carol Robbins' massive harp in the middle of the stage, and took a powder. Either way, it was a mistake.

While the Childs Ensemble's exceptional two-set performance could, in no way be perceived as "jazz with strings" or "Schoenberg with bebop changes", Childs' arranging and compositional styles are definitely influenced by classical structures; there are movements and changes in texture and tone that have no resemblance to jazz' standard Head-Solo-Solo-(Optional) Solo-(Optional) Drum Solo-Head configuration. And while Childs' unit achieved the intimacy that is paramount for classical chamber music to succeed, this wasn't tuxedoed orchestra musicians working through a slimmed-down version of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Then again, it also wasn't what you would call light lifting.

Opening with his own "Twilight Is Upon Us", Childs eased us into his complex musical world with a lyrical, engaging piano style reminiscent of Herbie Hancock. I've been told Childs' supporting players are members of a rotating cast of musicians he works with on a serial basis. From the sound and the cohesion the unit displayed during a labyrinthine deconstruction of Paul Simon's "Scarborough Fair", you'd be hard pressed to believe this particular sextet wasn't gigging five nights a week. Each piece had changes that were many and extremely varied, and they caught each change like ducks catching junebugs.

Bob Sheppard just finished recording One Sky (Motema, 2008) with Ryan Cohan, a Skidmore Jazz Institute alum who also infuses his jazz with classical concepts, so Childs' multi-chapter works must have seemed like a perfect fit for the multi-instrumentalist: His alto sax on "Hope in the Face of Despair" (inspired by the controversial graphic novel "Maus") simply soared, so high and so pure, and his contributions on flute and soprano sax added just the right accent to the epic "American Landscapes."

Far from being a distraction, Robbins' harp added a singular texture that dovetailed pefectly with the music and the players: Childs strummed & plucked piano strings to accentuate Robbins' solo on the oninous piece "The Hunted"; her duet with Childs on the elegy "Goodbye Friend" was mournful and meditative; and she combined with Larry Koonse's acoustic guitar to create a virtual stringed instrument with powers far beyond the usual norms. The literal counterweight to Childs was Antonio Sanchez, seen last fall at TSB as part of the Pat Metheny Trio. Placed on the opposite side of the stage from Childs, Sanchez' drumwork was phenomenal, offering solos that brought power and drama to every piece. Watching his hands and Childs' hands on "Scarborough Fair" was an education in speed and precision.

I'll admit some of this music was slow going. Every piece was a musical marathon (The meandering "Aaron's Song" was enough to make a patient man fidget), and was not designed for anyone who'd left their brain in their other jacket. Nonetheless, the overall beauty of Childs' music -- as well as the exemplary work of the Childs Ensemble -- made it worth fighting through the cold and grappling with heavy concepts.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.