Laura Nyro was an intensely emotional powerhouse of a singer-songwriter who, over the course of a 30-year career, wrote huge hits for others. One measure of her impact is that, for two weeks in 1969, she had written three songs in Billboard’s Top 10. Yet, as a performer, she never won a Grammy Award or earned a Top 40 single or gold album before her untimely death in 1997 at the age of 49.
Nearly a half-century later, an album of her songs by Grammy-winning composer/pianist Billy Childs and all-star cast of singers and musicians seems likely to win Nyro new fans and reinvigorate her musical legacy.
Much more than a tribute album, Map to the Treasure: Laura Nyro Reimagined (Sony Masterworks, September 9) boldly reinterprets and re-contextualizes her songs, drawing on jazz and chamber music, while retaining the joyous blend of Brill Building pop, soul, gospel, and jazz that made Nyro such an original.
Although she never won more than a fervent cult following as a singer and performer, almost everyone has heard the great covers of Nyro songs like The Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues;” Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “And When I Die;” Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Comin’;” and Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End.” Yet her most lasting legacy may have been her influence on a generation of pop and jazz innovators; Joni Mitchell, Donald Fagen, Rickie Lee Jones, Todd Rundgren and Elton John have all acknowledged her as an inspiration.
Also among her early fans were two 16-year-old, budding jazz musicians from Los Angeles, Childs, and a young bass player named Larry Klein, who had met in a music theory workshop for musically gifted high schoolers at USC. After class, the two friends found inspiration listening to Nyro records together; they would later play together as sidemen for Freddie Hubbard in the late 1970s (“Larry got me on that gig,” Childs says). After that, their musical paths diverged: Childs became a jazz pianist and composer of chamber and symphonic music, while Klein went on to fame producing Joni Mitchell and other pop and jazz artists. The Nyro project, with Childs arranging and playing keyboards, and Klein producing, is their first joint effort since touring with Hubbard.
The friends have assembled an impressive cast of singers for the project including Esperanza Spalding, Renee Fleming (she sings the aria-like “New York Tendaberry”), Alison Krauss, Dianne Reeves, Ledisi, Becca Stevens, Rickie Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin, Susan Tedeschi and Lisa Fischer (of 20 Feet from Stardom fame). Guest musicians include soloists Yo-Yo Ma (who accompanies Fleming), Wayne Shorter, Chris Botti, Jerry Douglas, Chris Potter, and Steve Wilson, along with the inspired pianism of Childs and a band that includes drummers Brian Blade, Jay Bellerose and Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Scott Colley, and guitarist Dean Parks.
Klein has ample experience producing large, complex projects; he co-produced River: The Joni Letters with Herbie Hancock, which won Album of the Year Grammy in 2008. That record explored the jazz implications of Joni Mitchell songs and led to a greater acceptance of Mitchell as a composer of jazz standards; this album could do something similar for Nyro.
In scoring a suite of Nyro songs, Childs drew upon his background in both jazz and classical formats – he has written works for orchestras including the L.A. Philharmonic as well as leading his own chamber jazz group.
The result is full of revelatory moments including inspired soloing by Shorter to adorn Spalding’s pure vocal in “Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp;” Chris Botti’s mournful trumpet elegy in the introduction to a solemn, orchestral interpretation of “Save the Country” (sung feelingly by Colvin); and the way “Stoned Soul Picnic,” fully inhabited by R&B singer Ledisi, morphs at the end into a funky, boppish piano solo.
In choosing songs for the record, Childs chose to explore Nyro’s Gothic imagination, which may surprise fans of her more familiar and sunnier melodies. “Her songs are like part of one long opera,” Childs said recently by phone from L.A., “where there are these recurring characters – God and the Devil, her father, her mother, her friends, men who have done her wrong and men who are good – it’s like a great novel.”
He said he felt compelled to include not only some of the hits, like “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Save the Country,” but also very dark songs that confront the world’s evils, like the heroin ballad “Been on a Train,” harrowingly realized by Rickie Lee Jones; and “Gibsom Street,” whose chilling lyrics (sample verse: “Don’t go to Gibson cross the river / The devil is hungry, the devil is sweet / If you are soft then you will shiver / They hang the alley cats on Gibsom Street”), sung by a world-weary Susan Tedeschi, which reminds Childs of German expressionist films like M or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Childs enjoyed working with his old friend Klein. One example of their collaboration was rethinking the song “Save the Country.” Nyro’s version had an optimism – it was like a rallying song for the nation’s spirits following the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK. “I loved the tunefulness and the upbeat quality of her version, but Larry had an idea: he said, ‘Why don’t we do it with a more somber approach, as though we’re looking back on the past 40 years, and the country has gone to hell in a hand basket?’ It’s more of a desperate plea, so I approached it that way. And it was a great idea.”
Why re-imagine Nyro, anyway? “How do you improve on something that’s already perfect?” Childs asked. “The point for me is not to improve on it, because you can’t. But I love this music so much, and it’s had such a profound effect on me, that I want to put it through the prism of my own experience.”
This is not your mother’s Laura Nyro record, but red-yellow honey, sassafras and moonshine for a new generation. – Allen Morrison