Live Music: Billy Childs Jazz-Chamber Ensemble at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Once upon a time there was something called Third Stream.  No one agreed on exactly what it was, but almost everyone had an opinion about it.  The most common consensus was that Third Stream was a new kind of music, one that combined elements of jazz and classical music.  Two streams blending in a Third Stream.  Get it?’

But most of the time the blending seemed to go awry.  A big, thick-textured classical segment would slowly be superseded by a walking jazz bass.  Improvisation would break out for a while, and then more classical textures returned. Two Streams flowing along, sometimes intermingling, more often not.  Maybe that’s why Third Stream faded into the distant horizon, one of the obscure byways in the obscure histories of both the other Streams.

Why all this looking back?  Because of the performance by pianist/composer Bill Childs’ Jazz-Chamber Ensemble at Vitello’s Saturday night.  The very name of the ensemble suggests a possible connection with Third Stream.  But only in name alone.  Because Childs’ works represented one of the rare examples of what Third Stream might have been, maybe should have been.  And even that association doesn’t accurately describe the extraordinary qualities of music that accepts no fixed definitions, no limitations of genre — music that was expressive only of the far reaching imaginations of the composer and the players.

Billy Childs

In addition to the impressive program of Childs’ works, that task was accomplished superbly by the Jazz-Chamber Ensemble players – guitarist Larry Koonse, saxophonist/flutist Bob Sheppard, harpist Carol Robbins, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Steve Hass, with the additional aid of the Calder String Quartet.

Most of the music traced to a pair of recent Childs albums, Jazz- Chamber Music, Vol. 1. Lyric and Autumn: In Moving Pictures Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 2 , each of which contained a Grammy-winning composition.  Opening with a unique recasting of Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby” (featuring rich, articulate soloing from harpist Robbins), the program proceeded to include such idiosyncratically titled Childs compositions as “Man Chasing the Horizon,” “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Hope, in the Face of Despair” as well as a work commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival and another unique arrangement, this time of the traditional English ballad, “Scarborough Faire.”

Words fail in an effort to describe the complexities and the subtleties of Childs’ musical imagination, which is far-reaching.  But several aspects in this performance should be mentioned.  The first harkens back to my original comment about Third Stream music.  Child’s works did not simply place genres side by side.  Instead, they found a common creative ground reminiscent of Rumi’s “community of the spirit.”

Similarly, Childs also chose his own way of dealing with elements from both genres.  His approach to unusual meters, for example, always followed the path of rich musicality.  Instead of pounding out a repeated 7/4, 9/4 or whatever, his metric shifts were organic, never arbitrary, flowing and shifting through a piece as part of its inner tapestry.  The propulsion of Price and Hass, brilliantly linking rhythmic foundations with rhythmic movement, was essential to that process.

Add, as well, the visual and emotional components that were inherent to Childs’ musical conceptualizing.  If any label applies to much of his music, it’s one that he himself favors – contemporary impressionism, a view that is often underscored by the titles he chooses for his works, as well as by their atmospheric visual imagery.

Equally important, there was the interfacing between improvisation and through-composed sections.  With superb improvisers such as Koonse and Sheppard — as well as his own inventive playing — soaring through the composed tonal densities of the Calder Quartet players, Childs succeeded thoroughly in his quest to create music with the capacity to come alive, in a constantly changing form, in every performance.

But don’t call it Third Stream.  Just call it great.

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Billy Childs photo by Tony Gieske.


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