When the Grammy-winning musician Billy Childs was 11 years old, his older sisters introduced him to the work of Hall Of Fame singer-songwriter Laura Nyro. Her blend of Broadway-inspired melodies, jazz improvisation and socially conscious lyrics have stayed with him.Now he has returned to this early source of inspiration, conceiving and orchestrating Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro, to be released by Masterworks on September 9, 2014.
"I related to her more than the other singer-songwriters of that era because the piano was the engine that was driving a lot of her music," Childssaid. "It was easy for me to escape into the world of the music because of its theatricality. The way she used silence, dynamics, going from extreme changes from very loud to very soft or vice versa-or heavily orchestrated to minimal. All of these were used to tell whatever story she was telling. Also, her words were not literal, more metaphorical and allegorical, so you could imagine what she was talking about and made it easier for me to conjure up images in my mind."
Childs is not alone in his enthusiasm. An incredible range of musicians are on board to interpret Nyro's narratives. Classical soprano Renée Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma add new meaning to her hometown ode, "New York Tendaberry." Jazz stars Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter collaborate on Nyro's pictorial "Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp." R&B chanteuse Ledisi updates the hit "Stoned Soul Picnic." Other prominent voices include Alison Krauss, Rickie Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin, Dianne Reeves, Susan Tedeschi, Lisa Fischer, and Becca Stevens, with featured instrumental soloists Chris Botti, Jerry Douglas, Chris Potter, and Steve Wilson also on board.
"It's incredible," Childs said. "Between myself and [producer] Larry Klein, there have been a lot of people who we've worked with, particularly Larry in terms of vocalists. And there are a hell of a lot of Laura Nyro fans out there. Combined with the novelty and timeliness of it, people just said, ‘Yeah!' And Masterworks is a really credible label."
While Childs had been thinking about a Nyro project for several years, it was a conversation two years ago between his agent Myles Weinstein and record executive Chuck Mitchell that set the process in motion. Mitchell, who has been a Nyro fanatic since her debut in the mid-‘60s, would not let this project slip past him. When Mitchell arrived at Sony Music Masterworks, Childs said, "all of a sudden it turned into this thing that we could not only do, but do it in a way we had not even thought of." That included reconnecting Childs with Larry Klein. The two musicians studied theory together as teenagers and had worked as sidemen for Freddie Hubbard.
Childs' own experiences in leading jazz chamber groups proved invaluable to creating the widescreen scope of Map To The Treasure. On this disc, his focus is on arranging the ensemble and guests to best present Nyro's imagery, rather than draw attention to himself as an improviser.
"My chamber group is all about getting the most out of the fewest instruments, which helped from the standpoint of orchestration," Childssaid. "To tell the stories the right way, orchestration is key to the success of telling those stories. Laura was so full of dramatic symbolism and poetry, the ensemble plays a big role in conjuring up such vivid images. And when it was time for a piano solo, I wasn't worried about setting myself up to look good. It was, ‘What do I need to tell the story?'"
Even after Childs' decades of considering Nyro's music, at the heart of it all is his unyielding devotion to her art. That love is the heart of the re-imagination of Map To The Treasure.
"The way she hit me, and way she continues to hit me is on an emotional level other than the intellect," Childs said. "If you love somebody, does that change? If you love your son, daughter, or mother does that change? I don't think so. Her music is such that it's so open for interpretation-you can spend your life interpreting it and make the music mean certain things to you. It may mean different things as time goes on, but my relation to it has not."