The Winds of Change
Mack Avenue Records, 2023 By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2 For someone whose name is not necessarily on the lips of jazz fans nor mentioned in poll listings, the pianist and jazz/cross-genre composer Billy Childs has had a relatively sun-kissed career thus far. Having been touted as a prodigy at the age of six, Childs’ musical education was steeped in jazz, classical, and popular music, all of which have contributed to his compositions and arrangements over his 30-plus year recording career.
Beginning with four widely-acclaimed albums on Windham Hill in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Childs has never released a bad album and has earned respect for his eclectic range, integrating elements of chamber music, ethnic, and popular styles into his performances with noted ensembles. His 2017 album Rebirth, oozing with stylistic depth, won a Grammy.
Chicago listeners should take note of Childs’ two scheduled appearances in our area, the first a quartet concert at Evanston SPACE on May 11( feat. Sean Jones - trumpet, Hans Glawischnig - bass, and Christian Euman - drums.) The next a two-week residency (with saxophonist Steve Wilson and bassist Rufus Reid) at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute from May 31 through June 14.
Currently, Childs has released his 13th album, The Winds of Change, on Mack Avenue, with a notable all-world ensemble including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Brian Blade.
After several albums that contain colors of his broad compositional palette, this new album is dominated by Childs’ jazz chamber music, heightened by the presence of Akinmusire, whose playing here could easily be transposed to an ECM production, as typified by the inclusion of “Crystal Silence” from Chick Corea’s classic album. The difference on this piece, as well as the rest of the selections, is the stellar trio core of Childs, Colley, and Blade, as if Akinmusire is the thematic foil that carries the mood while the trio bounces off it with colloquial rejoinders. Colley, especially, is invigorated by Childs’ exquisite playing while Blade lends his impeccable support.
What makes Childs’ albums so interesting is the extra touch; the trio itself would be fine to listen to (check out the closer, “I Thought I knew,” something akin to Ravel), but the addition of the erudite Akinmusire creates the chamber ambiance, giving each piece a thematic layer of intrigue.
With that sterling trio providing the depth, The Winds of Change offers seven songs that seem to evoke references to movie soundtracks. The first three tracks, combined, sound like an audio drama: the opener “The Great Western Loop” begins with a propulsive, harmonic Childs intro that carries the track into a grand pronouncement; the title cut is practically cinematic, a ballad that has an almost symphonic arrangement, dipping from its waltzy opening into a searching piano excursion punctuated by Colley’s ever-present counterpoint, finishing with a dramatic flourish and pensive denouement; “The End of Innocence,” which follows, suggests a commentary on the first two compositions. The ensemble is notably tight on this performance, with Akinmusire’s gift for subtle but profound expression a striking touch.
Like the closing song, “Master of the Game” starts with a neo-classical statement from Childs, before the trumpet rings in the theme, perhaps the deepest ‘chamber’ representation. The trio’s work here is, indeed, masterful.
Another cover, Kenny Barron’s “The Black Angel,” also has Childs’ classical touches that remind me of how Keith Emerson used to play, at least in the run-up to yet another impressive trio moment.
Billy Childs is clearly one of the more gifted if under-noticed artists in the jazz world. Every two or so years we are reminded of his wondrous talents and his noted collaborations with world-class musicians. The Winds of Change is one more distinguished addition to Childs’ catalogue.
Billy Childs, The Winds of Change. Mack Avenue Records, 2023.
Billy Childs, piano
Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet
Scott Colley, bass
Brian Blade, drums
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org