Audience charmed by Billy Childs Ensemble

The Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble looked like a jazz band when they filed onstage on Friday at

The Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble looked like a jazz band when they filed onstage on Friday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, except for the harp.

Childs sat at the same piano he’d played with trumpeter Chris Botti here in 2006 and launched a compact melody with tidy phrasing that his sextet took up with precision and spirit, everyone reading from charts except for Childs.

It felt like a chamber suite, then it got loose. Childs took the best solo, only touching the pedals briefly, so his playing had as much clarity as drive — and there was lots of that. When the applause faded, Childs said the song was “Twilight Is Upon Us,” but he and his band portrayed the approaching night as a time of promise and excitement.

It was all that and more.

Based on Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” about surviving the Holocaust, “Hope, In the Face of Despair” offered both extremes, Childs’ piano bringing peace after torment and Bob Sheppard’s alto sax confirming both. Sheppard’s role expanded in the set-closing “American Landscape,” an episodic excursion in which saxes and flute sketched varying vistas.

Before that, he sat out “Scarborough Faire” — yes, that “Scarborough Faire” — which formed from minor key meditations more in line with Keith Jarrett’s river-of-notes playing than the percussive, Chick Corea- or Herbie Hancock-inspired phrasing Childs generally favored.

Here, harpist Carol Robbins and guitarist Larry Koonse got to shine, the former in more emphatic hard-driving patterns than harpists normally get to deliver and the latter evoking Pat Metheny’s dry tone and agile way of running changes on scales.

If “Faire” topped the first set, the second sparkled with the Grammy-winning “Into the Light” that bristled with emphatic explosions then charmed with ballad passages and the tender “Goodbye Friend,” spinning outward from a harp and piano duet into a sweet full-band, flute-powered elegy.

Childs featured his own lightning fast runs in “Eric’s Song,” written for his son, fingers and thoughts flying together.

“The Hunted” had both frantic forcefulness and calmness. It also had the only solos of the night from steady bassist Hamilton Price and the combustible drummer Antonio Sanchez, recently at the Hall with the Pat Metheny Trio. Sanchez simmered and lulled, then burst out with fiery yet still musical blasts.

Sometimes the group displayed the honed, precise unity of a chamber orchestra in pinpoint playing.

However, when they went outside, they preserved the logic and structure of Childs’ compositions even while wandering wide and far.

Generous with the spotlight, Childs electrified the music whenever he soloed. Everyone onstage watched him, not for their cues to jump back in but because he kept surprising them.

He introduced most tunes by noting he wrote them, justifiably proud of his compositions. He had every reason to be just as proud of his performance on Friday: It was a gem of talent, taste and tunefulness, which charmed the small but happy audience more than challenging them.

Categories: Life and Arts

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