Review: Billy Childs Chamber Jazz Ensemble at Ronnie Scott’s – iJHF

By: Carol Robbins

November 18, 2011

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Billy Childs Chamber Jazz Ensemble with Harpist Carol Robbins

by Sabine Meijers / iJHF, November 2011

On Monday the 14th of November, the international Jazz Harp Foundation has taken a 1,5 day trip from Rotterdam to London to visit the performance of the Billy Childs Chamber Jazz Ensemble at Ronnie Scott’s during the London Jazz Festival. The ensemble visits Europe for a tour that also takes them to Vienna, Switzerland, Lithuania and the illustrious Duc des Lombards in Paris. Ronnie Scott’s was (even on a Monday!) completely sold out.

The Billy Childs Ensemble — with pianist Childs, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Hamilton Price, harpist Carol Robbins, saxophonist Tim Garland and drummer Brian Blade, presented works from Childs’ Grammy-nominated album ‘Lyric, Jazz Chamber Music No.1’ and ‘Autumn: In Moving Pictures’.

Very unique in this line-up is the harp. Although ‘unique’ might not be the right term, because the harp takes to Child’s musical vocabulary like a duck to water. Childs’ compositional style is to be described as contemporary impressionism. Will Friedwald from Wall Street Journal rightfully stated: ‘It’s impossible to tell where the jazz ends and the classical music begins’. It is jazz and improvisation but it is also composed music, both styles in free interchange to each other.

For a classically trained harpist-listener it is almost impossible not to think of Debussy or Ravel when listening to this concert. Childs’ arrangements are colourful, with sometimes chordal melodies and brilliant passages. It is said that Debussy embraced the idea of ‘musicalization’ of poetry and that one of his main influences was the famous poet Stéphane Mallarmé. On Billy Child’s influences the weblog ‘Jazz Express’ quotes: ‘“The compositional process that I use — and ultimately, what inspires me — depends on the composition, or rather, the intent of the composition. Sometimes I find it necessary to look inward, in order to express some sort of inner darkness or deeply buried emotion. Sometimes it’s the external world that inspires me — things in nature. Trying to recreate a beautiful natural scenario in music, just as French Impressionism does.’

As in Childs’ re-composition (you can hardly call it an arrangement) of Bill Evans’ ‘Waltz for Debby’ he was inspired by the seasonal changes of color in rural upstate New York. The piece starts off with a solo harp introduction; a beautiful prelude that blends impressionism with modern jazz before the piano takes over to finish the chorus and introduce the other members of the Jazz Ensemble. It’s probably also this way of re-composing that made an ensemble with that many stringed instruments (piano, guitar, bass, harp) work. It was our main question when going to this concert, how it would work to have that many strings in a Jazz Ensemble? One of the main reasons was that Billy Childs laid down a very keen chosen tapestry of composed and improvised music in interchange with each other, complemented with creating space for each musician to stand out in their own improvisations.

Childs also plays with classical music, like Fauré’s Pavane. If you think the performance of this warhorse is devoted only to Faure’s haunting Spanish dance, you’ll be mistaken. Here’s where brilliant and flowing passages come in. Although sometimes the haunting theme is slightly revealed, the next moment you feel like being in the middle of the most beautiful forest with all the magnificent colours that autumn brings. While sitting in Ronnie Scott’s I could alsmost litteray feel the rain softly dripping through the leaves.
In classical performance we often hear the mistake of interpreting this Pavane with a heavy romanticism feel, but Fauré himself tended to play it more briskly and no slower than 100 (beats per minute) to the quarter note. It is as conductor Sir Adrian Boult said ‘clearly a piece of light-hearted chaffing between the dancers’. I think Fauré would have been as happy as a clam with Childs’ interpretation.

Before intermission, we wished we would have heard more from the harp, but it is as Carol Robbins said: ‘you never know in advance where he’s going to’. Luckily after the intermission the role of the harp changed significantly and was put more in the spotlight, with some beautiful preludes and improvisations. And, last but not least, for the harpist-listeners who have a weak heart for the traditional tunes of the British Isles, yes, we also got that one! And this version of Billy Childs is even nominated for Best Instrumental Arrangement at the Grammy’s! Pleasant and gentle harp solos in duet with arpeggios on the piano make Billy’s ‘Scarborough Fair’ a tastefull treat at this wonderfull evening at Ronnie Scott’s.

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