Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The legacy of Laura Nyro: 'a message so beautiful you want to share it with everybody'

Photo by Nancy Levine

"She was the whole package."—Diane Reeves

 "It took forever for everybody to get inside and sit down, because people kept going downstairs to the gym to give her flowers . . . Then she was there, in the deafening roar of applause from her worshippers, a baby-skinned zaftig beauty with a penchant for thrift-shop attire."—Rex Reed, writing about a Laura Nyro concert in Stereo Review

"Her songs reached the depth of despair but never lost a glorious ecstasy in the singing. Like all great artists she wrestled with mortality at a young age – she wrote 'And When I Die' when she was 19. (Bundle up my coffin cause it’s cold way down there.)"—Suzanne Vega, Reflections on Laura Nyro 

"It’s like an ice cream soda and I love anybody who records my music . . . I’m very flattered.”—Laura Nyro  

Sometimes when I get advance notice of a new CD we'll be carrying I get a delightful frisson of anticipation, and such was the case with composer, pianist, and arranger Billy Childs' brilliant brainchild, Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. I imagine she would just adore its eclectic spirit. The album "brims with subtle yet striking moments," as Jim Fusilli observed yesterday in The Wall Street Journal.
Delicately applied piano and acoustic guitar by Mr. Childs and Dean Parks, respectively, and the orchestral strings form the supple spine of a suspenseful title track featuring vocalist Lisa Fischer. Supported by saxophonist Steve Wilson and featuring a knotty, gorgeous interlude by Mr. Childs, "Gibsom Street" is sung with dark fire by Susan Tedeschi. On "New York Tendaberry," Ms. Fleming's voice, Mr. Ma's cello and Mr. Childs's piano welcome the listener with beauty and purpose. Mr. Childs said those three compositions were elemental to his understanding of Nyro's essence as an artist…. "I knew it couldn't be a single singer," he said. "Her songs are so varied. Her output is like one long interconnected opera. Each song is a chapter in a book. She creates a world through symbolism and metaphor. Once you're in, it's an incredible world."
Though Mr. Childs dug deep into the Nyro catalog, he also included new readings of a few familiar tunes. Shelving the Copland-like gallop of the Nyro and Blood, Sweat and Tears versions, Mr. Childs's minor-key arrangement of "And When I Die" allows Ms. Krauss to expose a different meaning to the lyric. His bluesy interpretation of "Save the Country," written by Nyro in the aftermath of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, features Mr. Botti's mournful trumpet. Nyro's reading was angry yet upbeat; in their interpretation some four decades later, Mr. Childs and vocalist Shawn Colvin seem to question whether faith and optimism are still characteristics that define America.
In an era when so-called classic rock celebrates rubbish just because it's familiar, Mr. Childs has rediscovered and polished genuine gems from a long time ago. "It's not only characteristic of a certain generation or a certain time," he said of Nyro's music. "Her music and her beauty: It's not a mission for popularity. There's a message that's beautiful that you want to share with everybody."
Friends described Nyro as sweet, playful, and funny; she called songwriting "a happy profession."
Nyro was a poetic songwriter with a beautiful gift for language. She looked on herself as a rebel and cherished the freedom to write about whatever she wanted to: “I was always interested in the social consciousness of certain songs. My mother and grandfather were progressive thinkers, so I felt at home in the peace movement and the women’s movement, and that has influenced my music.”
In high school, she sang with friends in subway stations and on street corners: “I would go out singing, as a teenager, to a party or out on the street, because there were harmony groups there, and that was one of the joys of my youth.” Some of her favorite musicians were John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, Curtis Mayfield, Van Morrison, Miles Davis (seen below), and girl groups such as The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Shirelles.
This excerpt from a 1970 Down Beat interview shows how Nyro fought to maintain the integrity of her musical vision.
“I wasn’t interested in singing my music,” she says, “but I thought maybe I wanted other people to do it. I didn’t see very daring people . . . they counted me out because my material was different—that’s silly. One man told me to go home and write What Kind of Fool Am I? If anybody could be miscast, it’s me—that’s been my problem, because, if you put my music in the wrong place, it becomes a freak. I don’t fall into categories and people constantly want to put me in categories, but I refuse....
The Verve/Forecast album (originally entitled More Than a New Discovery but later renamed The First Songs … is not wholly bad, but Miss Nyro likes to ignore it by referring to her initial Columbia effort as her first. “They (Verve) picked the arranger and producer for me,” she complains, “they picked them and said ‘This is whom you must record with.’ And so my arranger (Herb Bernstein) went home and wrote about six arrangements in three hours. I mean, I work months and hours and years and a lifetime on my songs, and if something was a bit difficult, he’d just chop it right out . . . like if one of my changes was a bit difficult. They really kind of brought down my music. There was no balance at the beginning of me . . . there was no peace, there was no comfort, there was certainly no joy, there was no understanding and there was no sensitivity. Just incredible fights, and I was always crying—I mean, that’s the way all those old people really know me.”
Obviously, she prevailed, becoming so beloved that she could sell out Carnegie Hall in an hour.
This excerpt from Nyro's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction is not a great recording in terms of sound quality, but it's an absolutely stellar, right on, and heartfelt tribute by Bette Midler.


  1. Love it! Cannot wait to hear the new album! Thanks for the introduction to it and the remembrance of an amazing talent.

  2. "There once was a girl named Louize,
    Who had a great fondness for peaze.
    She ate them with pork,
    With her self-designed spork,
    And spelled them perversely with zzzz's.

    Gioconda got her Z back!

    1. Just wanted to say Daedalus's delivery is fast & ordering is easy. The oversized keyboard is simple to install. Thanks for the fix!