By Don Heckman
The countdown to the conclusion of the Jazz Bakery’s 16 year run in its Helms Bakery location continued Friday night with a performance typifying the venue’s consistently high quality programming. The Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble — with pianist Childs, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Scott Colley, harpist Carol Robbins, saxophonist/flutist Bob Sheppard and drummer Antonio Sanchez, accompanied on several pieces by the Ying String Quartet — presented an evening of impressive works by the Guggenheim Award-winning Childs.
The program was, in effect, a live rehearsal for an upcoming recording — a follow-up to Childs’ Grammy-nominated “Lyric, Jazz Chamber Music, No. 1” (which also was a Grammy winner for the composition, “Into the Light” ). But, although the music was often difficult, with frequent unlikely twists and turns, the playing flowed with surprisingly coherent togetherness. The first few pieces featured the Chamber Ensemble in Child’s arrangement — although “re-composition” would be a better description — of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby,” an as yet unnamed composition, inspired, Childs said, by the seasonal changes of color in rural upstate New York, and the lyrical “Autumn Song,” for piano, guitar and bass.
“I like,” Childs added, “to create visual images.” And it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Child’s compositional style as contemporary impressionism, in this case with an autumnal theme that resonated through most of the music, and especially in the original compositions. One could not always make the same observation about Childs’ soloing, which — with its extraordinary technical fluency — sometimes surfaced with a powerful harmonic intensity seemingly at odds with the subtly woven, inner movement of the composed passages. He was at his best, in fact, when — as in “Autumn Song” — his improvisational imagination was more finely in tune with both the theme and the concept of the work.
Despite the occasional out of sync moments between solo and written passages, however, there was nothing to complain about in the totality of what Childs had to offer. And the broad scope of his creative drive became fully apparent in his works for the combined Chamber Ensemble and Ying Quartet. Many jazz-oriented composers will tend to visualize a saxophone section when scoring for a string quartet. Not Childs, whose craft mastery, multi-layered contrapuntal writing and fascination with textural timbres were present in both the original works and the re-imagined arrangements. And the Ying players grasping his intentions with symbiotic attentiveness, brought the music to life via their utterly empathic togetherness.
Another Childs original, “Path Among the Trees,” and the Michel Legrand/Alan & Marilyn Bergman classic, “The Windmills of Your Mind,” were high points of the program, each providing showcase segments for each of the ensemble groupings, as well as opportunities for Koonse and Sheppard to display their world class improvisational wares.
Child’s determination to follow his own creative pathway is not without its uncertainties. But the results — which are clearly worth the effort — will be evident when the new recording (“Volume 2”) by the Jazz Chamber Ensemble and the Ying Quartet is released, hopefully by the end of the year.
The Billy Childs Chamber Ensemble and the Ying Quartet perform again tonight (Sunday, May 24) at the Jazz Bakery.
Photos by Bobby Colomby