Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Energy and elegance: Billy Childs' "The Wind of Change"

Billy Childs at 1905 in Portland May 4, 2023

I've seen the pianist Billy Childs perform live recently at Portland's 1905 jazz club. He is an elegant musician who is always dressed impeccably and with style and he always brings that same elegance and sophistication to his music. For his Portland gig, Childs brought with him the fiery trumpeter Sean Jones, the bassist Hans Glauswig and the drummer Chris Eumon. More about this at a later date.

BillyChilds with Sean Jones at Portland's 1905 Jazz Club May 4, 2023

I have admired the artist's works over the last several years and his release Rebirth from 2017 was, to my way of thinking, one of the best jazz releases of that year. 

Childs's new releases are always anxiously anticipated, as was his latest The Winds of Changewhich was released in March of 2023. The album is a compilation of seven beautiful and inspired vehicles of expression. They include a hallowed and gorgeous version of the late Chick Corea's haunting "Crystal Silence," "Black Angel," a Kenny Barron composition first heard as Freddie Hubbard's title cut from the 1970 album of the same name and five of Childs' own narrative and cinematically inspired musical compositions. 

The pianist/composer assembled a superbly intuitive group for the recording of this album. The excellent bassist Scott Colley and brilliant colorist Brian Blade on drums set the rhythmic pulse. The trumpet chameleon Ambrose Akinmusire is Childs' main front-line foil and collaborator.  The band on The Winds of Change is emotive, flexible, and possesses a telepathic sensitivity to executing Childs' musical demands and the results are spectacular.

On "Crystal Silence," after a beautifully thought-out piano intro, Childs utilizes Akinmusire's plaintive, slurring trumpet sounds to spell out the familiar melody in an expressive, humanistic way. Bassist Colley offers a moving resonant, deep-toned solo of his own and Blade adds the colors of his soft rhythmic brushes to the mix. There was a lot of reverence in the way Childs et al presents this song, a heartfelt dedication to the past composer.

Childs' ballad "I Thought I Know" was played as a trio. The contemplative melody had a swaying feel with Colley offering a moving bass solo and Blade's tight snare accompaniment setting the mood.  "Masters of the Game" Childs reunites with Akinmusire. The two are excellent foils, with Childs' sensitive, classically inspired pianistic thoughts countered by Akinmusire's fluttery, often slurring accents that add excitement and slight disruption to the beautifully inspired formality of Childs' composition.

"The Black Angel" is a dynamic vehicle to include here. The tune invites comparison of the language differences between how Hubbard once played this with Barron, the composer, on the original, and how Akinmusire interprets Childs' vision of the same composition. Childs chooses a more angular, less lilting, more cadenced approach and the trumpeters have two distinct approaches to how they deliver the melody. Hubbard is brighter, lyrical, more athletically dynamic, and precise- softened by Spalding's flute- and Akinmusire's trumpet feels organic, elastic, and more liquid. Childs' playing is dynamic, gorgeously developed with inherent beauty flowing from within, accented precisely by Colley and Blade's intuitive accompaniment. This one is just an example of how in-tune this band is here.

The album includes the captivating, "The End of Innocence" which could easily be seen as a cinematic score. Childs, a lifetime LA resident, claims to have been inspired by some of the great scorers of film like Michel Legrand and Jerry Goldsmith and you see the link. The music is beautifully played by Childs-inspired story-telling piano and his band. Akinmusire's trumpet lingers on long sustained tones that he slurs and screechers to great effect. His playing has an earthy, primal sense sound and what would be more representative of  what Childs is expressing in his "The Ending of Innocence."

Following in the film noir tract and cinematic approaches to music, Childs composed his "The Great Western Loop" with the scenery it evokes in mind. At the Portland gig, Childs spoke of this Pacific Northwest trail several hundred miles long that inspired this song. With a staccato intro, Childs' piano fills the room with a sense of urgency. The group then plays a synchronic serpentine line in unison that demands precision and is executed with razor sharpness. His piano serves up copious lines that flow out of him like an eruption of spring-fed ideas. Blade is particularly propulsive during the statements of repeated lines in unison. The colorful drummer is perhaps the present-day Monet of the era on his kit. 

The album ends with the title cut "The Winds of Change." In my mind, this is the jewel of the album. Childs related that the tune was originally written for the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove and an orchestra. The film influence here seems strongest. I am reminded of Michel LeGrand's work on the theme of The Thomas Crown Affair or perhaps Jerry  Goldmsith's work on the theme to Chinatown that featured Uan Rasey's celebrated trumpet work. Memorable movie music has been permanently tattooed into our cerebellum and rightfully so!

Childs' playing can be so elegant, emotive, and resplendent. The music is a feast of sounds and emotions and I am particularly drawn to the tumultuous tom work by Blade at several apex moments, Akinmusire's superbly emotive trumpet work, Colley's buoyant bass, and Childs' superlative piano and compositional work here. If you are drawn to the majesty that film score work can bring to you, this one is just breathtaking!

Billy Child' The Winds of Change is clearly one of this year's best albums.

Monday, May 8, 2023

A look back at the Great Guitarist Jack Wilkins RIP June 4, 1944 -May 5, 2023

Jack Wilkins (photo courtesy of Jack Wilkins)

Jack Rivers Lewis, better known to the music world as guitarist Jack Wilkins, passed away this past Friday, May 5, 2023, in New York City. Wilkins was seventy-eight years of age. Details and planned services as of this date are not yet made public.

Jack Wilkins June 2015 

I had the privilege of interviewing this superb guitarist just shy of his seventieth birthday in June of 2014. The experience of speaking with Jack was one that I came to cherish. The three-part interview was a fascinating look into Jack's life as one of the premier jazz guitarists of the last fifty years. He was a brilliant artist on the guitar,  a dedicated, generous educator, and a genuinely humorous, thoughtful human being, who I learned had a soft spot for Sci-Fi movies.  You can read this three-part interview herehere, and here.

A year later, when I was frantically looking for a jazz trio that would be able to play at my wedding in Westchester, and importantly to do right by my jazz sensibilities, it was Jack who came to my rescue. He was gracious, professional, and a huge hit to all the attendees. The trio thoroughly amazed the crowd with the tasteful music of  three allstar jazz players Jack on guitar, bassist Andy McKee and drummer Mike Clark. Who could ask for anything more? 

Jack Wilkins Trio with Mike Clark (drums) and Andy McKee (bass) June 2015

Upon learning of his passing from a surprise and deeply sad post that I read from his long-time friend Mike Clark, I made a point to relisten to some of Jack's great music and to re-read the interview we did together from 2014. 

I recalled Jack's amazing speed and remember him telling me how guitarist Al DiMeola, no stranger to being blazingly fast on the fretboard himself, once told him admiringly how "Wow, man I never heard anybody play as fast as you!"  Peers always knew and respected Jack's excellence.

Though he briefly entered into the fusion side of things with his guitar in the seventies, he confidently quipped  "People don't know that, but I can play the tar out of fusion guitar.", he preferred the undistorted sonic purity of the traditional electric jazz semi-hollow guitar sound that he so expertly mastered throughout his career. Besides his quick, flowing single-note lines, his chordal work was exceptional.

As an educator, who has worked as an adjunct at the Manhattan School of Music and the New School. In his own humble honesty about the challenges of teaching jazz to his students, he said 

"It's difficult to try and teach 'jazz.' It's an expression, it's a feeling, it's something that really can't be taught..but you can teach the language."  

He took his calling as an educator and as an elder passing on the art of jazz guitar seriously, telling me

"When I can hear somebody starting to play better because of my helping them, I am very grateful...I want to help them because they so want to learn."

He was a musical history buff of sorts and spoke of his early influences -Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Johnny Smith. He admired his contemporaries like Tal Farlow, Jimmy Rainey,

Atilla Zoller, Jack Wilkins, and Jimmy Rainey (photo courtesy of Jack Wilkins)

Chuck Wayne, and trailblazers Billy Bean and Joe Pass. He astutely named blues master Lonnie Johnson as one of the true original innovators on the guitar. Speaking with Jack about the history of the jazz guitar was like getting an education from a true sage.

After his classic 1973 debut album Windows,  Jack landed a gig with drummer great Buddy Rich. The gig was five or six days a week for thirty-five to forty weeks a year for over two and a half years with Rich starting in 1974.  Despite the grueling schedule he never found it repetitive or unrewarding. He credited Rich with being more of an amazing drummer in person than even the legend that was built around him. Wilkins cherished his time with the turbulent drummer and rated his stay with him as an immeasurable learning experience of a lifetime.

Jack Wilkins with Buddy Rich and Sal Nistico: (photo courtesy of  Jack Wilkins)

Wilkins often accompanied vocalists and enjoyed working with the likes of Morgana King, Jay Clayton, and Sarah Vaughan to name a few. Jack worked effectively in all musical groups-big bands, trios, duets, and as a solo artist. 

Though Wilkins never chased the spotlight that many musicians with lesser abilities did, he was never jealous or resentful. He just played, played well and his reward was the knowledge that his musicianship was always appreciated by his colleagues and his fans. 

On his seventieth birthday celebration, held at the Jazz Standard in NYC, he was honored by some of his most esteemed colleagues, a who's who of jazz guitarists - John Abercrombie, Vic Juris, Larry Coryell, Howard Roberts, Joe Diorio, and Jack. Their mutual respect for him speaks volumes.

Abercrombie, Juris, Coryell, Roberts, Diorio, and Wilkins 1974 70th Birthday bash at Jazz Standard (photo courtesy of Jack Wilkins)

Listening to the feelings and expressions that are present in much of Jack's music, he always conveys a sense of artistry, commitment, excellence, and authenticity. For me, at this time of loss, his music evokes a sense of joy and condolence. 

Re-reading his words from the interview from 2014 reinforces Jack's humor, his humanity, and his generous thoughtfulness. 

Jack was not fond of listening to his own recorded music. "Music is like a portrait, you play something that you are feeling at one time in your life, and then you put it on wax, and it's recorded and it's there forever. It's really introspective when you listen to your own music. That's why I am not keen on listening to my own music."

Fortunately for the rest of us, we can all be grateful to have his recordings to listen to and cherish.

I am forever grateful for knowing him both as a brilliant musician- and although we were not close- I consider him a friend. Jack Wilkins will be sorely missed by those whose lives he touched with his musical excellence and his sincere and humorous humanity. RIP Jack. 

Here are two from Jack.