Scanning song titles on Grammy-winning jazz pianist Billy Childs’ album “Acceptance,” due Friday from Mack Avenue, one could easily assume it was composed during the coronavirus pandemic: the title track, “Twilight Is Upon Us,” “Do You Know My Name?” But according to Childs, the album tracks a more personal journey.
“The older you get, the more you realize that it’s better to deal with things with acceptance than it is to resist what might be inevitable, like aging and the breakdown of the body, the breakdown of relationships — the breakdown of whatever,” says the Sierra Madre resident, who grew up in LA in a family whose discerning tastes helped shape his broad musical palette. “The last stage of grief is acceptance, and that’s where you need to get to if you want to survive, especially living in these days with everything that’s going on in 2020.”
Masterfully performed, the music is elegant yet dynamic, flecked with notes of hope, and threaded with memories and inspirations. One highlight is Childs’ graceful arrangement of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind;” as Childs’ ruminative piano solo is subtly joined by Hans Glawischnig’s standup bass, it captures the feel of late-night conversations and after-show jams. The song was originally heard in Rodgers & Hart’s 1940 musical comedy “Higher and Higher” and later entered into the Great American Songbook of recorded standards by icons such as Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. Childs says he first heard it played a decade or so ago by jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller’s trio during a gig at Clancy’s Crab Shack in Glendale and liked it so much that he asked Miller to show it to him; playing it now reminds him of his departed friend.
Opening track “Dori” is dedicated to late Brazilian guitarist and composer Dori Caymmi, whom Childs first heard in 1990 at Le Café in the Valley and with whom he later recorded and toured. “Quiet Girl,” inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Ardella,” was composed in the mid-1980s and revived and reinterpreted by Childs and his band from his 1988 debut album “Take for Example This…”
The players who have Childs’ back throughout “Acceptance” — Glawischnig, drummer Eric Harland and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson — also comprised the core band on his 2017 album “Rebirth,” which won a Best Jazz Instrumental Album Grammy Award. During closing track “Oceana,” Wilson not only helps Childs imbue the music with sounds evoking a marine world, he also shadows Childs’ dramatic keyboard runs and flurries so intuitively it is as though they are extensions of each other’s instruments. “He’s like a musical brother to me,” Childs acknowledges, adding that he recorded the album in New York because that’s where his musicians are based. “Those three guys, we have a chemistry that I like.”
That chemistry was essential (as was conguero Munyungo Jackson) for “Leimert Park,” which Childs “spontaneously composed” with Paul Jackson and Mike Clark in the 1990s — a funky, rubbery, joyous evocation of a time and place that was an invaluable “hub of black culture in Los Angeles” and also significant to the development of Childs’ artistic perspectives. Joined by vocalist Alicia Olatuja and percussionist Rogerio Boccato, they weave a pensive arrangement for “Do You Know My Name?,” about human trafficking. Childs was commissioned to write the piece for Michigan State University’s big band jazz orchestra, and it is one of the few in his oeuvre to feature lyrics.
Childs, who’s been performing publicly since he was 6, won’t be touring to promote “Acceptance” (“2020 is gone for live performance”). He recently composed a violin concerto for Rachel Barton Pine that he anticipates being performed at Chicago’s Millennium Park next July, but mostly he’s focusing on interviews, occasional performances on Facebook Live and Zoom, and, like everyone else, trying to stay balanced in our reeling world.
“I read an article [that said] one of the key emotional obstacles that could confront you as you get older is the feeling of irrelevance,” he muses. “As you get older, do you even matter to the world anymore? Your level of mattering to the world diminishes, I read in this article. I don’t know that I agree with that. But that’s a major concern. The coronavirus really put that into sharp focus when anybody was concerned about saving their life, and what they had to do to save their life flew in direct conflict with what we need to do as artists. We need people to congregate as artists, but congregating was going to kill people, right? So then you start questioning your relevance as an artist. But on the other hand, when these uprisings started happening, that motivates you as an artist, because art and music define a political movement or can illustrate it or inspire it. With all of that, you start feeling relevant.”
“Acceptance” feels of this moment, even though Childs finished recording in January. He says he sought to make it clear that “acceptance is not resignation. It’s not giving up. It’s being at peace with things that you might not want to happen happening — the death of a friend — and trying to move on, and trying to come to terms with it and become whole again after it. That was the impetus behind that tune, ‘Acceptance,’ and the larger statement I wanted to make with the album.”
Mack Avenue releases “Acceptance” August 28. For more about the artist, go to billychilds.com