With the possible exception of Carole King, there was no more poetic or impassioned piano-based songstress during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s than Laura Nyro. A child of The Bronx, her songs were vivid reflections of her inner self, her New York surroundings and less definable plains of social and spiritual awakening. While pop acts of decades past (The Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night) had hits with her tunes, Nyro herself enjoyed little by way of commercial visibility. Today, 17 years after her death, her extraordinary recordings – especially career defining works like 1968’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and 1969’s New York Tendaberry – are ripe for rediscovery.
Enter Los Angeles pianist and arranger Billy Childs, along with an A-list of female vocal stylists to resurrect one of the most underappreciated songbooks in pop history.
Childs’ approach to Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro is not subtle. The album sports a mix of orchestral and jazz inspired arrangements that recall the darker, less ornamental music of Steely Dan. Of the 10 guest vocalists spotlighted, six are paired with celebrated male instrumentalists. The honored soprano Renee Fleming, for example, is matched with genre-hoping cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a wistful, wintry New York Tendaberry. Here, strings and Childs’ piano leads weave in and around the singing like gusts of wind before surrendering to luscious orchestration.
More unexpected is the pairing of blues-soul belter Susan Tedeschi with jazz saxophonist Steve Wilson. Both mingle with broader orchestral strokes on Gibsom Tree, creating a nocturnal, noir-like feel, especially during a pensive jazz interlude Child places in the middle of the arrangement. Tedeschi, though, has seldom sounded more elegant and commanding.
A few of the divas do just fine without a guy backing them up. Veteran R&B songstress Lisa Fischer (of Rolling Stones and 20 Feet from Stardom fame) sounds enchanting against hushed orchestration during Map to the Treasure’s torchy title tune. Equally compelling is contemporary R&B star Ledesi who helps Childs rekindle the joy, groove and pure pop innocence of Stoned Soul Picnic.
But the show stealer is the album-closing And When I Die, which pairs Alison Krauss with her longtime Union Station mate (and former Lexingtonian) Jerry Douglas. Possibly the best known of Nyro’s songs (it was a major 1969 hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears), And When I Die lets Childs’ arrangement of piano and strings enhance the eerie chill of Krauss’ whispery vocals. Douglas’ wiry dobro solo then adds rustic, earthy candor.
What results is not just a stately requiem for the uneasy soul Krauss sings of who yearns to leave this world “naturally.” It is also a gorgeous revitalization of the lyrical and musical brilliance that surrounded Nyro’s sublime music.