Pianist, composer and arranger Billy Childs has been defining the sound of American music for four decades.
Whether it’s with Freddie Hubbard, the Los Angeles Philharmonic or Yo-Yo Ma, the five-time Grammy winner has shared his talents and creativity with a wide variety of collaborators over the years.
He has just released his latest album Acceptance, the follow-up to his Grammy-winning record Rebirth. The new Mack Avenue release puts the emphasis back on Childs’ piano playing after many years of accolades for his composing and arranging. Childs thrives on group improvisation and recruited fellow master musicians including saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Eric Harland for Acceptance. The music is as diverse and vibrant as its creator’s career.
Childs joined us to chat about his hand-in-hand approach to composition and improvisation, and about the meaning of Acceptance.
The new album is called Acceptance. The name can mean so many things. Can you tell me about the title itself and what it meant?
As I’ve grown… as I’ve advanced over the years — let me put it that way — you just begin to learn that things that you want to go your way a lot of times don’t. People pass on that you didn’t want to say goodbye to. In grief, there are five stages, and the last stage is acceptance. That’s the place you have to end up if you want to survive whatever hardship you’re going through. I wanted to differentiate between acceptance and resignation, because acceptance involves a choice. With resignation, you feel like you don’t have a choice and you just resign yourself to a terrible situation, whereas if you accept it, then you’re making the choice to deal with it and let it pass over you. That kind of thought inspired that song. There’s a bittersweet quality to it. It starts off in a minor key, but you’ll notice that at the end of the song, the melody is stated in a major key. After Steve’s solo, we state the same exact melody, but this time it’s major, which means hopefully that there’s some positivity to be taken out of this.
This album and the last one, you’ve gotten back to the piano. You’re just as known for composing and arranging as you are for your playing. Is there a different creative part of you that is satisfied by improvising and playing in a group, that’s different than when you’re sitting and composing and arranging?
That’s a very good question. I look at composing and improvising as two sides of the same coin. It’s just that one is planned out more than the other. When you’re composing, you’re improvising ideas anyway. In order to come up with the ideas, you have to come up with something from nothing, which means you have to improvise. And then you plot it out, you make blueprints of it so that it’s structurally sound and pleasing to listen to — at least, I like my music to be pleasing to listen to. By the same token, when you’re improvising, you’re composing spontaneously. They’re kind of the same thing. So, I think the same part of your brain and your soul is being satisfied by the process. When I’m composing and I’m getting a slew of good ideas, I get the same excitement as when I’m improvising with a group and we’re all hitting on all cylinders. It’s the same endorphins, or whatever it is. I think it’s all from the same creative well.
When you are in the improvising mode, do you find it influences your compositions? Is the flow easier because all those ideas are coming at such a pace?
Everything feeds everything. When you’re composing a lot, it helps your playing. When you’re playing a lot, it helps your composing. You’re exercising and setting in motion that part of yourself that is the improviser, the creator. It needs to be stimulated in order to function. I also think you need peace of mind. I don’t thrive well under stressful situations. When my mind is stressed out, it gets in the way of my creative process. Having peace of mind about things makes things better. This past year has been really… I had a violin concerto I had to finish, which I did, but it took me a lot longer because of everything. The coronavirus pandemic, the racial unrest here in the United States, the upcoming election, and who’s in the White House right now — he who shall not be named — all of that was weighing on me, so it made it hard to actually compose.
Some people have been inspired creatively during this time, and other people have checked out and have not been inspired to make music. It sounds like you’re falling somewhere in between.
Well, I had to finish this piece. And actually, it was due for a concert that was going to happen in December, which obviously got cancelled. The silver lining was that it got pushed back a year, so I’ve had more time to consider every note and not be rushed — which was a godsend, since it was such a hard process to compose in the first place because of all of this crap. At the same time, events around me affect me. In retrospect, when all of this is over or when all of this goes back to some sense of normalcy, then I can reflect and comment on it. I guess some people can just create — maybe this paradigm doesn’t bother them, this sheltering in place, wearing masks, social distancing, but it sure as hell bothers me, because I think humans have to congregate. It’s one of the basic things that we do in order to get things done.
So, with some perspective on this, you’ll be able to maybe use the time better later than you can now, because you have to process the insanity of what’s gone on.
You have to make sense of it. You have to say something cogent about it. It’s harder to do when you’re in the middle of it.
Are you hopeful? Where’s your positive meter?
I’m an optimist. Like I said earlier, I think that the basic thing about humankind is that we have to congregate. We have to connect. It doesn’t do to connect on Zoom, in two dimensions. We need to connect in three dimensions. Once we can play with each other, musicians are going to play with each other like it’s the last gig on Earth. Listeners are going to start listening like it’s the last concert they’re going to hear — at least, I hope not just for a month and then everyone goes back to their iPhones. But yeah, I think we will get through this. I was just talking to Steve Wilson this morning, and he was telling me about New York and how a lot of people are migrating from New York and a lot of office space is vacant and Broadway is not going to reopen till February, and all of this stuff. People are moving out. But I don’t like the people who don’t see the forest for the trees. They’re looking at this one period in time and thinking that’s the way it’s going to be forever. It’s not. One phrase I can’t stand is “new normal.” I hate that phrase, because to me it’s like resignation. It’s accepting something unacceptable as normal, without any fight or any word about it. If you get locked up in prison, that’s your “new normal.” Is that acceptable? No.
In a tune on the new album, Twilight is Upon Us, you talk about Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays specifically, and you also talk about melody being a gateway for how listeners get invited into music. You sort of rarely hear that from jazz musicians. Can you talk about melody and the importance of that in the work that you do?
Talking about Twilight is Upon Us is a good intro to that conversation, because Lyle Mays was a dear friend of mine … and one of the things he said — it sounds so simple and it almost sounds kind of sarcastic, but it’s actually true — he said, “A lot of the times, composers forget that music should sound good.” What he means is that it should be pleasing to the ear. You want to impart a message or prove that you’re a complex thinker or whatever, but the bottom line is that I write music for other people. It has to be pleasing to me and it has to be something I like, but I just happen to like things that I think other people would like. I think melody is one of the main ways to invite a listener in. A listener goes to a concert and they don’t walk out saying, “You know, I really dug that imitation of the fifth, and I really liked the tritone substitution.” They don’t say any of that stuff. They say, “I like the song that went da-da-da-da-da.” That’s first and foremost to me. Structure is a huge thing, too — the telling of a story in time. A badly edited movie, for instance, is going to lose your interest. When something dramatic happens and then they switch to a panoramic view of the city with one of those horrible rock songs, you start losing interest. It’s the same with music. There should never be anything that shouldn’t be there. You should really consider every second, every passage of time in the piece, to engage the listener. You don’t want the listener’s attention to be disengaged. So, those two things — melody and structure — are what I work on.