You have to admire Billy Childs for confessing without irony that the excesses of British progressive rock pioneers Emerson, Lake and Palmer pushed him into a career as a black jazz pianist.
Catching Childs’ attention was flamboyant keyboardist Keith Emerson, who embedded classical themes from composers including Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók and Modest Mussorgsky into ELP’s popular early ’70s releases, when Childs first heard the band. The racial element is pointed out by Childs, who was the only black student at a boys boarding school outside of Santa Barbara where a classmate introduced him to the rock trio.
“It was something I never would have heard in a black neighborhood,” the Los Angeles-raised Childs said.
“It totally freaked me out, like, ‘How good is this stuff!’” Childs said from his home in South Pasadena. The piano lessons of childhood began to mean something, and he started spending all his free time at the school’s piano, teaching himself Emerson’s keyboard riffs.
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“I started getting pretty good, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this could be something. I don’t ever want to do anything else.’”
Childs, 57, became progressive in his own right, carving out a career as a highly respected jazz-based artist who – not too surprisingly – observes no boundaries in making music. He brings his acoustic quartet to the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center for four nights, Wednesday through Feb. 7. The top-flight band includes Steve Wilson on saxophones, Hans Glawischnig on bass and drummer Jonathan Blake.
Childs’ varied compositions and arrangements won him the 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship for composition. Childs has received more than a dozen commissions for classical works.
Out of 10 Grammy nominations, he won the awards for composition for each of his two genre-bending chamber jazz recordings, “Into the Light” (2006) and “The Path Among the Trees” (2011). Both featured medium-sized ensembles, acoustic guitar, harp and strings. Those records were, in part, inspired by the late songwriter and vocalist Laura Nyro, who used harpist Alice Coltrane on her album “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat.”
Childs took his appreciation of Nyro to a higher level with last year’s “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro,” in which he arranged Nyro songs for Renée Fleming, Esperanza Spalding, Alison Krauss, Rickie Lee Jones, Yo-Yo Ma and Susan Tedeschi, among others.
Nyro was a cryptic genre-bending artist herself whose work might best be described as pop-based art songs. She died of cancer in 1997 at age 49.
“All of her work seemed to be like a big opera centered around New York,” Childs said. “Each song was a different chapter and these recurrent characters were there – God, the devil, her errant lovers, her mother, her father.”
Between 1967 and 1971 – her most significant creative period – Nyro made five hugely influential albums. Many of her more accessible songs became major pop hits for other artists, including Barbra Streisand, the 5th Dimension, Three Dog Night and Blood, Sweat & Tears. However Nyro’s own records and performances of darker, complex songs created a devoted following of fans whose enthusiasm for her intimately emotional music has never waned.
“Her stuff is symbolic and metaphorical and abstract,” Childs said. “You’ve got to interpret it. Plus, it shifts time signatures and is loud, then it’s soft. All of these things heighten the drama, but break up what’s expected. A lot of times people are attracted to monotony.”
Childs had the idea for the Nyro project more than 15 years before he finally was able to pull it off. At first he thought he would create instrumental versions of the songs, but later decided the words were too important not to include. When high-profile producer Larry Klien (Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Shawn Colvin) was enlisted, the creative resources were finally in place to attempt the record.
“It was either gonna be great or fail spectacularly,” Childs said of the album, which works well on its own merits.
Now Childs is going back to his jazz roots in a sense, touring with an acoustic quartet. He’s written new music for the band but also pulled out pieces he wrote decades ago when he mostly played with a rhythm section and sax. “I made a detour and went in to these lofty pursuits. I’ve written symphonic music, chamber music, had an electric band. All of these things that are non-jazz or jazz-hybrid things,” he said.
“It’s really fun and cathartic now to discover my playing self rather than my writing self.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.
Billy Childs Quartet
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre Cabaret, Mondavi Center, UC Davis, 1 Shields Ave., Davis
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Feb. 7
Information: (866) 754-2787; mondaviarts.org