Billy Childs and the Lush Jazz of 'Lyric' Pianist Billy Childs' new CD is nominated for a Grammy as Best Jazz Instrumental Album. He visits NPR's Studio 4A, where he tells Liane Hansen about his "jazz-chamber music" and performs selections from Lyric.
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Billy Childs and the Lush Jazz of 'Lyric'

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Billy Childs and the Lush Jazz of 'Lyric'

Billy Childs and the Lush Jazz of 'Lyric'

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: The Grammys will be awarded in less than a month, and there's relative newcomer on the list of nominees. Pianist, composer and arranger Billy Childs' new CD "Lyric" is up for best jazz instrumental album, best instrumental arrangement for his version of "Scarborough Faire" and best instrumental composition for this cut called "Into the Light."

(Soundbite of "Into the Light")

HANSEN: The subtitle of "Lyric" is "Jazz-Chamber Music, Vol. 1," and Billy Childs is with me in NPR Studio 4A.

Welcome to NPR, and welcome to the program, Billy.

Mr. BILLY CHILDS ("Lyric"): Oh, it's great to be here.

HANSEN: It's a pleasure to have you. You have to start with a definition for us, please. Define jazz-chamber music.

Mr. CHILDS: Well, I'll tell you, I did play a composition for the Dorian Wind Quintet, and it was for piano and wind quintet, and I was really struck by how we rehearsed every minute detail of the composition, you know, so that we got a sense of breathing together with the music. And so I wanted to kind of apply that to a jazz ensemble, where I could write really intricate detailed music for a jazz situation and, you know, have it breathe together like that, so I kind of came up with the name jazz-chamber music.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Chamber Music America has recognized you with a grant, so there must be something to this, you know, compositional mix that you're doing. I'm interested in what they say about the idea of this kind of jazz-chamber music.

Mr. CHILDS: They really--you know, I just was in a board meeting, and that was a really hot topic, how does jazz fit into the chamber music world, because a lot--the perception of chamber music is obviously from a western European standpoint where it's, you know, those small ensembles, string quartet and whatnot, and I have to say they're really doing some important things by recognizing jazz and adding that to the mix.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Tell us about the members of your ensemble, the ones you play with on the recording.

Mr. CHILDS: Well, on the recording, the core members--'cause I also add string quarters and woodwind quartets--but the more core members are me, Larry Koonse on guitar, Carol Robbins on harp, Bob Sheppard on woodwinds, and the drum chair and the bass chair are two people. Brian Blade and Smitty Smith are playing drums, and Scott Colley and Jimmy Johnson are playing bass.

HANSEN: It's interesting you're using a harp.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, yeah. And Carol Robbins is unbelievable. She's one of the few harpists, the only harpist I know who, that improvise in a jazz context the way that she can. And it's really--it's kind of cumbersome because you have to move your feet to change the pedaling for the notes, and it's really remarkable watching her play.

(Soundbite of harp)

Mr. CHILDS: My main challenge when I'm composing is coming up with melodic material. I'm really geared towards melody. To me the hardest challenge in composing is not really writing long, convoluted forms or, you know, really facing orchestration. It's coming up with a simple melody that sounds like it's already been written and appeals to people, you know? And then once you do that, then it's not that hard to imagine other instruments. It's kind of like building blocks, like Legos or something, where you design the instruments and orchestrate them in ways that you choose, you know?

HANSEN: Let's take advantage of you then being at the piano, and there's a composition that you've written. It's named for your son, who's nine years old?

Mr. CHILDS: Uh-huh.

HANSEN: It's called "In Carson's Eyes."

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah.

HANSEN: Do you want to say something about it before you play it?

Mr. CHILDS: Well, you know, when he was born, he had these--and he still has these really big eyes, you know? And the eyes were real--like windows. So, you know, I just called this composition "In Carson's Eyes."

(Childs performs "In Carson's Eyes")

HANSEN: "In Carson's Eyes" performed by Billy Childs here in Studio 4A, a tune that he named after his nine-year-old son. Beautiful, lots of arpeggios in there.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, yeah.

HANSEN: It's just an interesting technique to use. You use it in "Scarborough Faire."

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, yeah, I do, too. Kind of the same type of thing. In fact, "In Carson's Eyes" was kind of inspired by "Scarborough Faire." But it's the same type of thing.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: So I...

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: know? And then...

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: know? So there's a lot of arpeggios. And I guess what's attractive about that tune to me is the openness of the sound--you know, the fifths and the fourths, you know?

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: So I wanted to kind of take that further, you know, like with a lot of open...

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: You know, those kinds of things.

(Soundbite of "Scarborough Faire")

HANSEN: I understand one of your first influences was Keith Emerson.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah.

HANSEN: Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Really?

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

HANSEN: You can hear it. You can hear it.

Mr. CHILDS: Really?

HANSEN: A little bit.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, yeah.

HANSEN: Sure, those big chords and such.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, and a lot of triadic stuff like, you know, in "Scarborough Faire," actually, there's a...

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: You know, those kinds of things are like Keith Emerson. I guess those kind of--Keith Emerson influence. Also Laura Nyro, too, is like...

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: You know?

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: You know, that was kind of an influence. My older sister was really into Laura Nyro and, you know, I kind of, by osmosis, got into it, too.

HANSEN: I heard you got into Emerson, Lake and Palmer because you were bored at boarding school and all.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah.

HANSEN: Is that true?

Mr. CHILDS: Uh-huh. Should have been called `boring' school.

HANSEN: And something about that song "Sweet Tarcus"(ph) that you couldn't resist and...

Mr. CHILDS: Right, yeah, you know. Actually, I was walking back to my room from a soccer game, but then I heard "Tarcus" and I was like, `What is that?' Because I had never heard, like, the Hammond organ played in that way.

(Soundbite of "Sweet Tarcus")

Mr. CHILDS: Then when I heard, you know...

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHILDS: ...on the organ, I was like, `Wow! Let me check this out.' So then--and then I heard his piano playing and it really knocked me out.

HANSEN: Was it a straight path, then, from Keith Emerson to what you're doing now?

Mr. CHILDS: No, not really. See, I--before I went to the school, I was always kind of playing the piano, playing at piano. But I always liked jazz. I was into Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner before I even went to Midland, which is the boarding school that I was at.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Do you think we have to listen intently to your music? Is your music the kind that's best to just actually sit down on the couch and listen to it?

Mr. CHILDS: I try--I hope so. I hope that's how people listen to my music because...

HANSEN: I mean actively, you know? Really...

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah.

HANSEN: ...paying attention.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, that's really good that you say `active li'--because that's a big thing with me, active listening as opposed to passive listening. I think there's a lot of music out there right now that is pretty much passive listening, you know, where it kind of tells you what to think. It doesn't give you a lot of options of what to think, you know, just kind of forces you in a direction, you know? It has, like, a drumbeat that is constant, you know, and metronomic and sounds that repeat ad infinitum, you know? But what I try to do is to get people to when they actively listen to imagine things, you know? And when you hear the layers that I put in, then hopefully you can get something out of it that will spark your imagination and take you somewhere that's enjoyable to you.

HANSEN: And not just audio wallpaper.

Mr. CHILDS: Exactly.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Big year for you, 2006? You got a lot on your plate?

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, actually. I'm supposed to write a French horn concerto. There's, you know, more jazz-chamber music. I have the CMA grant that I have to do, which means that I have to compose a piece for my group and we're going to perform at--in New York and also in Los Angeles.

HANSEN: And you're going to be at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles...

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah.

HANSEN: ...Sunday the 22nd?

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, I'm going to be at the Jazz Bakery the 17th through the 22nd, so Tuesday through Sunday.

HANSEN: OK. We have time for a little more music. And before you play us out, Billy Childs, I just want to say thank you so much for coming in and I want to wish you the best of luck at the Grammy Awards.

Mr. CHILDS: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me. It's really an honor for me to be here.

HANSEN: What are you going to play us out with?

Mr. CHILDS: I'm going to play a song that I wrote called "Hope in the Face of Despair." It was inspired by Art Spiegelman's "Mouse," a graphic novel which is really moving. It was really moving to me. So this is "Hope in the Face of Despair."

(Childs performs "Hope in the Face of Despair")

HANSEN: Billy Childs playing for us in Studio 4A. His CD "Lyric" is available exclusively through his Web site, There's more information and music on our Web site,


HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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