BILLY CHILDS with Sean Jones, Alicia Olatuja, Matt Penman, and Ari Hoenig (!!!!), JAZZ ST LOUIS, 2 FEBRUARY 2024

By Kim Kleinman
Contributing Writer

Note: This Saturday, Jazz Spectrum will showcase the music of Billy Childs, with selections from his latest release, The Winds of Change, and from an earlier recording, Acceptance

Though I had seen Billy Childs on a livestream from Smoke Jazz Club just three weeks ago with the drummer Ari Hoenig, the saxophonist Steve Wilson, and the bassist Hans Glawischnig, I was thrilled to recognize Hoenig settling in behind the kit when the band came on stage. The trumpeter Sean Jones recorded an album here and I’ve seen him at least four times since I’ve started coming to Jazz St Louis. His presence on the bill was what prompted me to put this show on the season’s agenda well before I knew about Childs’s wonderful Grammy-nominated album “The Winds of Change” with Ambrose Akinmusire, Sean Conly, and Brian Blade. So I was already looking forward to it—and then there was Ari Hoenig! 

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As is our wont, we were sitting in the balcony over on Hoenig’s side of the stage which put him prominently in the sonic mix from the stage even had my attention been so drawn to him.  But his contribution to the overall gig was significant because Childs is himself a deeply rhythmic player who can, like Jean-Michel Pilc who plays with Hoenig and Francois Moutin in a powerful trio, take full advantage of the drummer’s uncanny ability to put off-kilter elements in each of the polyrhythms he’s playing while never losing the overall groove whether he and the band are roaring or whispering. He is manic enough to remind me of Animal of the Muppets, but he is quite subtle and completely engaged with the compositional elements of the material. Having seen his own trio quite often, I know he is a fine composer too.

“Dance of Shiva,” based on a rhythm suggested to Childs by the drummer Eric Harland, was the epitome of how this band works with Childs and Jones playing single notes in that complex pulse and Hoenig embellishing them. But the connection they had was evident from the openers, “The Great Western Loop” and the title cut from The Winds of Change.  It was also illustrated in their Laura Nyro cover, “Map to the Treasure” and even in “The Windmills of My Mind” closer with featured St Louis native Alicia Olatuja. 

Childs had the awfully good idea to do a Laura Nyro tribute album, as she wrote intelligent tunes worth remembering. (Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro, released in 2014.). I liked Nyro’s work long ago, but this song wasn’t immediately familiar.  Olatuja was properly evocative and subtle on that tune with just Childs before the band came in deftly. “Windmills” is a ‘60s earworm and guilty pleasure, but Michel Legrand wears thin for me. Because I moved myself downstairs to catch Hoenig as he walked off stage, I focused on his playing one last time as the set came to an end.

As with other jazz heroes whom I have only known through streams with whom I have chatted with to thank, Hoenig was gracious and reciprocated my appreciation. I am glad for such exchanges, underscoring that this is folk music made by folks. 

Childs’s tunes and playing are sophisticated and engaging. Jones is a rich player who easily stepped into the horn role Akinmusire played on the album and, for that matter, Steve Wilson played in the Smoke gig, and added his own commentary. Childs plays with fluidity and authority deftly navigating the challenges his appealing tunes present. His music is relatively new to me but I will watch him with interest.  A bonus will be if he keeps working with Hoenig and helps introduce the drummer to a deserved broader audience.

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