Jazz pianist Billy Childs

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The Grammy winner shares why he chose to pay tribute to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro in his latest project and performs the track, “The Confession.”

A three-time Grammy-winning pianist, arranger and composer, Billy Childs developed his voice by merging jazz and classical genres. He's recorded two volumes of jazz/chamber music and received several orchestral commissions. He's also performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Sting, Wynton Marsalis, the L.A. Phil, the Detroit Symphony and others. At age six, he demonstrated an aptitude for piano and graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor of music in composition. After apprenticing with Freddie Hubbard and J.J. Johnson, he began his solo jazz recording career in 1988. Childs' latest project, "Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro," pays homage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.


Tavis: Despite good intentions, tribute albums can often disappoint. But the new album put together by multiple Grammy winner, pianist and composer, Billy Childs, to celebrate the ground-breaking work of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro does not disappoint. Trust me.

The new CD called “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro” is a testament not only to her artistry, but to Billy Childs’s creativity as well. He’ll end our program tonight with a performance from the new CD. But, Billy, first of all, good to have you on this program.

Billy Childs: It’s great to be here.

Tavis: Larry Klein…

Childs: Yes.

Tavis: Who produced this project — I should say to the audience — is the same guy who produced “River: The Joni Letters” by some guy named Herbie Hancock that went on to be Album of the Year.

Childs: Really [laugh].

Tavis: You may have heard.

Childs: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: First jazz album to have done that in, what, 50 years or so.

Childs: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: So you’re in good company in terms of production on this.

Childs: Yeah. Larry and I, I mean, it was kind of serendipitous the way it came together because Larry and I knew each other since 1973. We met in a theory class…

Tavis: There’s a great picture. There it is. I love my team. They got it up fast. Love this photo of the two of you way back when.

Childs: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Back when I had hair [laugh]. We met in 1973 and we took theory class. And then later on, we played with Freddie Hubbard in the late 70s. And we kind of parted ways around the early 80s.

He started working with and eventually married Joni Mitchell and I kind of stayed the course in the jazz world. So this project brings us back together after 30 years.

Tavis: Since Joni’s name keeps coming up, let me just ask a quick question and we’ll move on. What do you make of her songwriting ability?

Childs: Joni Mitchell’s a genius. I think she’s brilliant, you know. I think she and Laura Nyro are kind of like the two most important singer-songwriters, although the term singer-songwriter is kind of like a limiting description of what they are. And I think they’re kind of like, in my opinion, the two that stand out the most.

Tavis: You called this project “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro.”

Childs: Yes, exactly.

Tavis: The critics have labeled this a tribute album.

Childs: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: I even used the word tribute a moment ago in introducing it. Do you agree with that? Disagree? You like that? Dislike that?

Childs: Well, you know, I didn’t approach it like a tribute album in the sense that, to me, a tribute would be something that kind of pays alms to the person and it’s mostly about that person that you’re doing the tribute to.

This is more kind of a reimagining her music where we take her music and kind of put it through the prism of our own experience, you know. And it’s kind of like a joint kind of production.

Tavis: For those who do not know Laura Nyro was, how would you describe her?

Childs: I would describe her one of the most important songwriters that America has produced and someone that everybody who wants to write songs should check out in the same sense that anyone who wants to play jazz piano should check out Herbie Hancock.

She was somebody who had these different influences and kind of synthesized them into this really organic hole she was coming from, like the doo-wop, the Broadway musical genres, jazz. John Coltrane was a big influence on her. And she’s coming from just the basic folk singer songwriting genre as well.

And all of these get synthesized into this kind of organic hole where you then just focus on the drama and the power of the stories that she’s telling.

Tavis: Great storyteller. She was, what, half Italian, half Jewish?

Childs: Jewish, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. Changed her name, the spelling of her last name.

Childs: Yeah, yeah. It was originally Nigro, N-I-G-R-O, and I guess she didn’t want to be called…

Tavis: She didn’t want to be a Nigro [laugh], so she said half Italian, half Jewish is enough. I gotta be a Nigro too [laugh]? So she changed it to N-Y-R-O, pronounced Nyro. Inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Childs: Yes.

Tavis: 2012, I think it was? Yeah, 2012, she goes into the Hall of Fame.

Childs: Well-deserved, I think, yeah.

Tavis: Dies in ’97 of…

Childs: ’97 of ovarian cancer, the same disease that claimed her mom at the same age.

Tavis: Wow.

Childs: You know, at age 49.

Tavis: Yeah. Died young, way too young.

Childs: Way too young.

Tavis: Speaking of young, you’ve got some young folk and some not so young folk on this project. But, I mean, everybody and their mother.

Childs: Yeah, I know.

Tavis: I mean, all of your friends showed up for this one.

Childs: I know.

Tavis: Shawn Colvin, Chris Botti, Lisa Fischer, Renee Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma, Rickie Lee Jones, Alison Krauss, Ledisi, Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter, Becca Stevens, everybody.

Childs: Yeah. It turned into this thing that, you know, it started out with this idea. Well, I’d been thinking about this for like the past 12 or 15 years, you know, but never could figure out how to do it because it was hard for me to conceive of one singer who could cover all of the ground that Laura Nyro could cover with her own songs.

So I thought that it had to be multiple singers, which prevented me from doing it over the years. But then I just got tired of it being on the back burner and I called my agent who made a few phone calls and it turned into this thing.

Tavis: Your phone calls were answered literally [laugh]. They answered and showed up.

Childs: Yeah.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds here. Tell me about the track that you’re going to perform for us live tonight, “The Confession,” with Becca Stevens.

Childs: Yeah, “The Confession.” That’s a song that Laura wrote. It’s on “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” and, you know, from my perspective, it’s a song about she takes the idea of virgin, you know, and turns it into somebody who’s new to love, you know, and is new to this feeling of intense love for her lover. It’s a beautiful song.

Tavis: It’s a beautiful song and it couldn’t be played by a more beautiful person who has a gift that I have loved for years and finally got him on this program for a project that is awfully worthy. It’s called “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro,” produced by Larry Klein.

Again, I say this because, for those who didn’t see Herbie Hancock sneaking up on us years ago to win that Grammy for Album of the Year, it just surprised everybody. The first jazz album to do it in decades. So you got a wonderful team here behind Billy Childs on this project.

So, as Billy mentioned a moment ago, he’s going to perform a song written by Laura Nyro called “The Confession.” He’ll be joined by singer Becca Stevens. As he gets ready to hop on the keys, I will say thank you for coming on.

Childs: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Thanks for watching, and enjoy Billy Childs and Becca Stevens. And as always, keep the faith.


Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 8, 2014 at 8:26 pm