WELCOME TO L.A. Welcome to L.A. gets this city right. The Alan Rudolph film, starring Keith Carradine, came out in 1977, when pianist Billy Childs was 20. Maybe Childs saw it. It reminds me of his music.
In Welcome, soft light soaks everything, even when it’s dark. Surfaces are important, but they’re translucent, easily revealing what is (or isn’t) behind. Aimless striving and unacknowledged pain are blunted by warmth. Situations are often outlandish. And Richard Baskin’s score resonates — simmering, flowing, full of overripe drama.
Childs, an L.A. native, gets it right the same way, and his new Lyric is the latest example of what makes him one of the most appreciated underexposed artists alive. From behind his ruby-toned piano, he guides his working ensemble and a mini orchestra through a series of elegantly defined moods that include a memorial to his deceased friend bassist Eric Von Essen, a tribute to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Southern California reflections on Bach. All right, for all the potential weight, it’s pretty — Childs plays regularly with a harp — and it’s precisely Grammy material. He’s piled up four this year, in fact, adding to his previous four.
Yes, he’s learned the ropes. After graduating in composition from USC in 1979, Childs made some albums for Windham Hill and for Chick Corea’s Stretch Records, gathering notice if not riches. Talk to musicians around town, and Childs’ name regularly crops up as a man they admire for his musicianly abilities and persistence. He’s also figured out how to gather grants, commissions and soundtrack work, not to mention the Grammys; these are the things that save career abstractionists from a dog-food diet. In other words, he’s taken charge of his fate. Lyric, for instance, is available only through his own Web site, www.billychilds.com. Listen and learn. Billy Childs, along with drummer Brian Blade, reedman Bob Sheppard, harpist Carol Robbins, guitarist Larry Koonse and bassist Jimmy Johnson, winds up six nights at the Jazz Bakery on Sunday.
I get choked up just thinking about it. Identical-twin L.A. border-breakers Nels and Alex Cline turned 50, playing Cryptonight at Club Tropical two nights to celebrate, and I was at Night 1, where they jammed in duet for the first time since they were even skinnier kids. (The second evening was a gang bang with a horde of friends.)
“I’m seven minutes older,” bragged Nels. Then the black-shirted elder teased his electric guitar into shivers of feedback; white-shirted drummer Alex delivered an ear-busting stomp, and they took off. Nels’ sound has got to involve blood and Satan. Between cosmic noise and virtual blues, head down and vibrating, he instigated a guitar loop that somehow sounded exactly like a distorted organ, then layered a muezzin arabesque on top, while Alex rolled a “Tomorrow Never Knows” tomtom beat. They pushed the extremities of volcanic loudness and lunar quiet.
The place was packed with pals, and up front sat the Clines’ mom, Thelma, two fingers to cheek, taking it all in with an expression of pure wonderment. Family.