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The Graham Album Review #1788

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Billy Childs: Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro

by George Graham

(Masterworks 066752 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/17/2014)


Songwriter tribute albums have been a regular feature of the music business for quite a while. They are most frequently heard in the jazz world, but recent years have brought on a fair number of multi-artist compilations of songs by particular songwriters. In 2013 we reviewed a tribute album to the late Nick Drake, and there have been a number of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell tribute albums. This week we have another one that turns out to be especially interesting, in that rather than being a collection of different artists doing the composer's songs, it's mainly the vision of one arranger pianist who brings in a number of interesting people as vocalists. The CD is by Billy Childs, called Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro.

Singer-songwriter pianist Laura Nyro is one of those highly creative figures to emerge in the 1960s, and her albums not only became classics to a generation, but several of her songs became big hits for other popular artists like The Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night, Peter, Paul & Mary, Blood Sweat and Tears, and even Barbra Streisand. Ms. Nyro emerged at a young age, writing songs in her teens -- one of her first compositions was And When I Die which was sold to Peter Paul & Mary to record when Nyro was 18. She made and released her first album by age 20 in 1967, and after she was signed to Columbia Records, she released a series of recordings that would become highly influential classics and provide the songs that others would transform into hits among the wider public. Ms. Nyro died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49, the same age and cause of death as her mother, after resuming a recording and performing career following her largely dropping out of the music scene in the mid 1970s.

Ms. Nyro's music has faded some from the public eye, though the classic soft rock commercial radio stations still play the popular covers of her songs. Billy Childs is a jazz pianist who in his career has done jazz and classical fusion recordings. He recorded for the New Age oriented Windham Hill Records, and around 2005 released a recording with his jazz chamber ensemble. In his liner notes to the new CD, Childs writes that he first heard Ms. Nyro's music leaking in from his sister's bedroom, where he said that to his young ears, it sounded like “agreeable screaming,” but he soon developed an appreciation for Ms. Nyro the vocalist and the songwriter who penned a lot of interesting pieces that defied many pop conventions.

Billy Childs was born ten years after Laura Nyro and, never met her. But this album’s producer Larry Klein was planning to work with Ms. Nyro on an album near the time of her death, which never came to fruition. Klein and Childs have also known each other since they were in school playing jazz together.

The word "reimagining" in this album's title is a good one, since Childs created some really interesting variations on the songs. He paid special attention to the lyrical mood. Many of Ms. Nyro's songs and records combined rather serious or dark lyrics with upbeat bouncy music. Childs' choice of songs to include is also interesting. There are three of the best-known, And When I Die, Stoned Soul Picnic, and Save the Country, there are a lot of lesser known songs which are often given a darker treatment. Childs continues with his Jazz Chamber Ensemble sound, with a string quartet and usually a concert harp appearing on each track. This being a tribute album, various guest singers do the vocals, and they are eclectic bunch including opera singer Renee Fleming, Rickie Lee Jones, jazz vocalist Diane Reeves and bluegrass singer Alison Krauss to name a few. There are also guest instrumental soloists, mostly from the jazz world, such as saxophonists Wayne Shorter, and Chris Potter, along with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The versions can run from brooding to jazzy but all seem to cast a new light on the songs, especially for those who have not heard those lesser-known Nyro songs in a long time.

Leading off is probably the most classical-sounding of the tracks on the album, a version of Ms. Nyro's New York Tendaberry, one of the made-up words that often graces her songs. The guest soloists on this are Renee Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma. The song is a kind of paean to New York City while the arrangement ranges from the contemplative to more energetic. <<>>

Jazz singer Becca Stevens is featured on the song The Confession originally from Laura Nyro's Eli and the Thirteenth Confession album. The performance captures the mood of Ms. Nyro when she was in her more musically assertive mode. <<>>

One of the lesser-known Nyro songs, Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp here features jazz sensation Esperanza Spalding on the vocals, with Miles Davis alumnus and Weather Report co-founder Wayne Shorter on soprano sax. Not surprisingly, it comes off as one of the jazzier arrangements on the album. <<>>

Laura Nyro's early work was very much influenced her New York upbringing, including the seamier side of the city. Been an a Train deals with trying to save a friend from a drug overdose. Rickie Lee Jones was an excellent choice for the vocalist on this song. Chris Potter is the featured sax soloist, while the arrangement with the orchestral setting adds further interest. It’s one of the most absorbing tracks on the album. <<>>

Pop and soul singer Ledisi is featured in one of the more upbeat of the Nyro songs that Childs picked for the album, Stoned Soul Picnic. In a way, it provides some release from the sometimes brooding mood of much of the album. <<>>

Another of the songs about the rougher side of the city is Gibsom Street a name which Ms. Nyro made up. Blues singer Susan Tedeschi proves to be a good choice for this rather foreboding sounding track. <<>>

Among Ms. Nyro's best known performances on her own records is Save the Country. It was written at the height of the Vietnam war and in the wake of the 1960s assassinations of significant political figures. It was meant as a kind of reaffirmation that we were still a good country despite the "fury in my soul" of the lyrics. Childs says that he and producer Klein decided to treat the song as a melancholy look back, in the album’s arrangement. Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin does the vocal, with Chris Botti on the trumpet, playing almost a kind of bugle line at the outset. <<>>

The CD ends with another brilliant track, And When I Die, which was the first song that Larua Nyro wrote in her teens. Billy Childs put the song into a minor key. Alison Krauss does the vocal in this fascinating stylistic blend with a mixture of orchestral and bluegrass sounds that features Jerry Douglas' Dobro contrasting with the orchestral harp. <<>>

Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro by Billy Childs with special guests, is more than a typical tribute album. The multifaceted songwriter is represented in a way that amplifies the moods of her songs, often bringing the lyrics more into focus through the arrangements. Each of the guest vocalists contributes to the album, while Billy Childs' vision for the project and his creative arrangements with strings and orchestral harp provide a kind of unity while exhibiting an eclectic palette of sounds. The musicianship is first rate and it’s the kind of record that has a lot of subtlety that rewards repeated listenings.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. I was going to give it an A for the good clarity and for not being overly volume-compressed. There is an ebb and flow of volume, but sometimes it builds to the point that there is some distortion at the loudest moments. So we'll deduct point for that.

Billy Childs' new project is an outstanding one in the way the creative arrangements enhance the songs, and it was also a needed reminder of the remarkable songs of Laura Nyro.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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