There is no shortage of albums that pay tribute to great songwriters, but few prove as worthy of, and so perfectly matched to, their subject as does “Map to the Treasure – Reimagining Laura Nyro” by Billy Childs.
For the 2014 album, Childs, a pianist, composer, arranger and three-time Grammy winner, recruited superior talent including vocalists Renée Fleming, Rickie Lee Jones, Alison Krauss, Dianne Reeves and Esperanza Spalding. Supporting musicians included Chris Botti, Jerry Douglas, Yo-Yo Ma, Dean Parks and Wayne Shorter. While these artists have very different approaches to song, on “Map to the Treasure” they complement each one another thanks to Mr. Childs's gift for arrangement.
Nyro’s songs encouraged a variety of interpretive styles. They blend soul, gospel, jazz, show tunes and pop, and in the late ‘60s produced hits for many others including Blood, Sweat and Tears; the Fifth Dimension; Barbra Streisand; and Three Dog Nights. Nyro, who died in 1997 at age 49, released nine albums during her short lifespan. In the passage of time, her renditions of her own songs top many of the glossier, more familiar hit readings.
As For Childs, he was introduced to Nyro's music through his sister, the playwright Kirsten Childs, in his pre-teen years when he was already a promising pianist in Los Angeles, where he was raised. His career blossomed as he moved fluidly between the jazz and classical worlds, but the impact of Nyro's music never left him. Some 15 years ago Bobby Colomby, who had been the drummer for Blood, Sweat and Tears, heard an arrangement that Childs wrote and mentioned that it reminded him of Nyro's work. (Blood, Sweat and Tears had recorded a cover of Nyro's "And When I Die" in ’69, and Colomby told Childs that he'd tried to recruit Nyro to join the band.) Childs began to ponder an album that reinterpreted her music through his eyes.
Instinct told him he’d need many voices to reveal Nyro’s colors. "Her songs are so varied,” he told me. “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."
“Map to the Treasure” brims with subtle yet striking moments. Delicately applied piano and acoustic guitar by Childs and 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 gorgeous interlude by Childs, "Gibsom Street" is sung with dark fire by Susan Tedeschi. On "New York Tendaberry," Fleming's voice, Ma's cello and Childs's piano proceed with beauty and purpose to welcome and enrich the listener.
Though 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, Childs's minor-key arrangement of "And When I Die" allows 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 Botti's mournful trumpet. Nyro's reading was angry yet upbeat; in their interpretation some four decades later, Childs and vocalist Shawn Colvin seem to question whether faith and optimism are still characteristics that define America.
“Map to the Treasure – Reimagining Laura Nyro” was nominated for two Grammys – Best Jazz Album and Best Arrangement, Instrument and Vocals for “New York Tendaberry” – and didn’t win either. That it wasn’t nominated for Album of the Year was a terrible oversight: Without dispute, it was one of the year’s best recordings. In an era when so-called classic rock celebrates rubbish just because it's familiar, Childs rediscovered and then polished genuine gems from a long time ago to create a transcendent album that honors its subject and contributors, while celebrating his extraordinary talent as well.