Billy Childs – Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro – Sony Masterworks 88843 06657 2, 71:24 [9/9/14] *****:


(Billy Childs – piano, Wurlitzer, celeste; Dean Parks – guitar; Scott Colley, Carlitos del Puerto – bass; Brian Blade, Vinnie Colaiuta – drums; Jay Bellerose – percussion/ string section; Carol Robbins – harp; With special guests: Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, Becca Stevens, Lisa Fischer, Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Shorter, Rickie Lee Jones, Chris Potter, Susan Tedeschi, Steve Wilson, Shawn Colvin, Chris Botti, Dianne Reeves, Alison Krauss, and Jerry Douglas)

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I approached the review of Billy Childs’ CD tribute to the beloved Hall of Fame songwriter/singer Laura Nyro. The excitement flowed from the cast of musicians and singers involved in the project. The trepidation was that quite often “tribute” albums fall flat due to poor choice of vocalists, and weak arrangements that do not do justice to the honoree.

It did not take long – a single listen sufficed – to determine that Childs (along with his producer (and friend) Larry Klein – had done proper homage to Laura Nyro. Laura’s talents were multifaceted as her blend of folk, jazz, Brill-building Broadway pop, and deeply-felt socially conscious lyrics made the choice of guest artists critical to the success of the project. Childs’ arrangements and the orchestral background strings are stunning. Many tribute projects fail to match the impact that the artist had during their recording career. You will not find that here.

Nyro’s primary album releases covered only the three-year period between 1968-1971, from Eli and the Thirteenth Confession through Gonna Take a Miracle, but the output from these four albums has provided a treasure trove for other artists such as Barbra Streisand, The Fifth Dimension, and Blood Sweat and Tears. Laura’s versions of “Spanish Harlem,” “Jimmy Mack,” and “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” though written by others are arguably the definitive soulful versions we most remember. Nyro had the ability to expose her vulnerability, matched with a voice that was dynamic, changing from a soft plea to gut wrenching heights bridging theatrical gospel/folk with jazz improvisation skills.

Billy Childs’ arrangements and the chamber jazz strings have the dramatic impact that Nyro’s songs so richly deserve. Childs has onboard vocalists and musicians ranging from classical backgrounds (Yo Yo Ma and Renee Fleming), to folk (Shawn Colvin and Alison Krauss), soul (Lisa Fischer, Ledisi), blues (Susan Tedeschi), and jazz (Esperanza Spalding, Chris Botti, Chris Potter, Wayne Shorter.) Each guest comes through masterfully, backed by strings that are stirring and reverential, not cloying nor saccharine.

There is not a weak track, nor even a misstep. Lyrics are clearly enunciated giving the listener the opportunity to soak up Nyro’s blend of pathos, social consciousness, and use of metaphors and story telling. From her love of New York and Spanish Harlem, to exploration of sexuality and the search for love, while exploring her inner demons, and adding her pleas for civil rights, it’s all here. Laura’s lyrics are mated with deeply affecting primary instrumental backing by guests Steve Wilson (alto sax), Wayne Shorter (soprano sax), Chris Potter (tenor sax),  Chris Botti (trumpet), and Jerry Douglas (dobro)

As each track is powerful and compelling, I would slight a guest artist by mentioning my favorite tracks, and leaving out mention of any of the special guests. Kudos are due to Childs and producer Larry Klein for putting together this flawless project.

Vocalists are matched so well with the arrangements that you (almost) don’t mind that you aren’t hearing just a snippet of Laura, bringing you back to Nyro’s albums that attracted a cult following. Her influence has been acknowledged by Elton John, Todd Rundgren, and Joni Mitchell.

The acoustics on Map to the Treasure are outstanding, both crisp, and warm, with a full soundstage. This CD will be well remembered when the next Grammy nominations are announced. It deserves a solid five stars…

TrackList: New York Tendaberry, The Confession, Map to the Treasure, Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp, Been on a Train, Stone Soul Picnic, Gibson Street, Save the Country, To a Child, And When I Die

—Jeff Krow