In 1994, the Monterey Jazz Festival revived their commission program, commissioning a work by Billy Childs (Concerto for Piano & Jazz Chamber Orchestra). In 1998, the Monterey Jazz Festival again commissioned Childs; this time he arranged a set of original compositions from Bobby Hutcherson. Saturday night marked the third time Childs premiered a Monterey Jazz Festival commission piece before an anticipatory audience.
After of Jason Moran's controversial, polarizing and admittedly challenging Monterey Jazz Festival commission piece "Feedback" in 2009, jazz fans might think that the selection of Childs was a safe choice. However, Childs made his own daring decision, writing a composition that paired his quartet with minimalist "new music" string quartet Kronos Quartet.
Childs warmed up the crowd with two traditionally flavored and spellbinding jazz pieces. The first was the Grammy-nominated "Aaron's Song," written for his son in 1997. The second, "Hope, in the Face of Despair," had an unexpected provenance — it was based on Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus. The music wavered between the two emotional states, ending at a balance point between hope and despair. By the time Childs welcomed Kronos Quartet to the stage, there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.
What seemed like an out-of-the-box choice, however, was not quite as offbeat as it appeared. Kronos Quartet are no strangers to jazz; they've performed with Pat Metheny and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Childs said he wrote the music "not with any storyline in mind, just what I was feeling." The often angular strings of Kronos Quartet layered a sharp, sometimes harsh sound over the warm tones of Childs' quartet, adding a surprising but not displeasing jolt to the music. (The two quartets didn't seem thrown by the low-flying prop plane that flew overhead shortly after they began, adding its own surpising counterpoint to a quiet string-and-piano section.)
Childs struck a perfect balance with his piece, injecting the unexpected to intrigue jazz fans looking for something innovative while maintaining a solid footing in the world of jazz that pleased the traditionalists.
For more information on the Monterey Jazz Festival, see our Monterey Jazz Festival page. For coverage of the 2010 Monterey Jazz Festival, see all our Monterey Jazz Festival posts. For more photos from this and other performances at the Monterey Jazz Festival, see our 2010 Monterey Jazz Festival set on Flickr.