Live Jazz: The Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble at Vitello’s

By Tony Gieske

I was thinking all night that nobody at Vitello’s could possibly deserve, much less grasp, all the wonders that Billy Childs and his ensemble were bestowing on us last Saturday.

Billy Childs

Childs was playing in his flawless and bounteous way on the piano, in front of which sat Larry Koonse, listening to him with a smile on his face and occasionally playing flawlessly if not bounteously.

Caroline Campbell

Just beyond them onstage was the beautiful Caroline Campbell, first violin in the Sonus String Quartet, whose every solo chance was Paganinian, and very pretty as well.

Supplying hard swinging drive or elegant harmonicism, whichever the Childs pen had bidden, were the bassist Hamilton Price and the drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Carol Robbins got her harp into the rhythm-section work, although it was sometimes imperceptible within the aural avalanches.

Bob Sheppard

Saxophonist Bob Sheppard stood about as far away from the Childs keyboard as you could get in Vitello’s vast upstairs room, but he got more work than anybody else, since he had to enunciate the fiercely complex themes that Childs had written for him, then proclaim his grasp of the gnarls by improvising on them at length.

Up against the wall, he was never less than authoritative and enjoyable in that task.

Authoritative and enjoyable will do as adjectives for Childs’s playing, too, but the reader must endure many more.

Larry Koonse

He calls this group the Jazz-Chamber Ensemble, and its first CD was nominated for three 2006 Grammy awards, winning for the vast and ambitious Into the Light.  The latter was the salient feature of the Vitello night. I won’t attempt to bore you with a verbal map, there’s just too much to go over. It wowed me.

So did the other works, such as “Hope in the Face of Despair,” which he began with merry Satie-like piano triplets in the right hand and ominous deep chords in the left.

Then Sheppard played a supersmart soprano sax chorus, among other delights. Childs returned with a songlike passage preceding some Ellington sounds.

All night, the strings were darling, the jazz sector just as cool, and the writing  more intelligent and effective than anything Gunther Schuller, Charles Mingus, John Lewis or any other Third Streamers had offered us previously.

Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble

I haven’t heard the Laura Nyro-Alice Coltrane work Childs cites as an influence, “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat,” if it actually exists. And I saw no foreshadowing of this night in Childs’ pastoral output for Windham Hill Jazz.

Said Childs at the end: “There was a lot of music to work on tonight…and a lot to listen to.”

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE

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