Billy Childs’ vast range of musical influences comes through in his decades-long catalog as a jazz pianist and composer. Sometimes these shifts in genre and style emerge within a single song.
Take his solo piano arrangement of “New York Tendaberry” by Laura Nyro. In one piece, he moves seamlessly from gorgeous, fairytale-like contemporary classical to choppy, militant notes to frilly waves reminiscent of wind chimes. And then he goes quiet, somber, with loose melodies that transition into cascading streams of notes blurring together with the sustain pedal. A six-minute piece can feel like quite a journey.
Childs believes that people go to concerts to be moved and that stories are one portal into that. “The main [challenge] is to tell a dramatic story,” he says. “I use whatever format can most effectively do that, whether it’s jazz or classical or chamber music.”
Incredibly versatile, he has composed pieces for small ensembles and scores for full orchestras. On Friday, Nov. 8, he’ll lead his quartet — with Josh Johnson on saxophone, Alex Boneham on bass, and Ari Hoenig on drums — in an evening of jazz at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, presented by Performance Santa Fe. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.
A child of the ’60s, Childs was raised in Los Angeles on a lot of different music. His family had eclectic tastes. His father loved Stan Getz, Nat King Cole, and the Swingle Singers, among others. His mother favored the Baroque period, listening to Bach, Handel, and Haydn. His sisters were into the popular music of the day, which was quite wide-ranging and genre-defying in and of itself: the Beatles, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon.
It’s no wonder that when he came into his own as a pianist and composer — and won five Grammys and a Guggenheim fellowship — he drew his inspiration from myriad artists, genres, and eras.
Childs started taking piano lessons when he was 6, but, as he put it, he “wasn’t very interested in piano. I wasn’t, like, a wonder kid who was playing Mozart concertos for the mayor of L.A.,” he says, laughing.
No, his love affair with the instrument took a little more time. Eight more years would pass before he had his lightning-bolt moment. While he was attending a boarding school for boys in California, he heard Emerson, Lake & Palmer for the first time. That’s when the jazz musician we know today was born.
“I freaked out,” he says. “It blew me away. I was completely interested. There was a piano at the mess hall, where we ate, and I’d listen to Emerson and go to the piano — which was a football field’s length away — and tried to learn to play it.”
When he moved back to L.A. at age 16, he started taking music lessons and attended the Community School of the Performing Arts. He went on to study composition at the University of Southern California and then, fresh out of college, he was immediately in demand in the L.A. jazz circuit. His career skyrocketed as he toured with jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Childs went on to collaborate with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Gladys Knight, Sting, Dianne Reeves, and many others.
He also became president of Chamber Music America, a service organization that helps chamber musicians network with one another, find gigs, and receive grants.
This weekend won’t be his first time in the City Different, but it’s been years since he’s performed here.
While in town, he’ll also lead a master class for the jazz ensemble students at the New Mexico School for the Arts. He says he’s not sure what the class will entail — possibly he’ll talk about the business side of music, provide techniques for composing, answer any questions the students have, sit down and play with them, or all of the above. He frequently holds workshops while on tour, often not knowing ahead of time what he’ll be teaching. If Childs has learned anything throughout his career in music, it’s how to improvise.
Says John Rangel, an NMSA artist-in-residence and jazz instructor who has known Childs for a long time, “He is an incredible teacher and contemporary jazz composer and pianist. In anticipation of the master class, the NMSA jazz combo has been working on his composition ‘Quiet Girl.’ I wanted the students to have an inside look into this composition and be able to ask him questions about his improvisational approach.” ◀
▼ Billy Childs Quartet
▼ Presented by Performance Santa Fe
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St., 505-988-1234