Laura Nyro was a pioneering singer-songwriter, whose confessionals paved the way for Joni Mitchell to make the style cool in the late ’60s. Her lyrics meshed personal revelation and social commentary, set within her homemade concoction of Tin Pan Alley, jazz and gospel-soul. Because there wasn’t anything quite like it — although Mitchell and Janis Ian were hot on her heels — Nyro seemed earnest to a fault. She amassed a strong cult following in the mid-to-late ’60s but fared better with the masses when her tunes were diluted by popcraft and turned over to the likes of 5th Dimension, Three Dog Night and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Chamber-jazz pianist and arranger Billy Childs and Mitchell’s longtime producer Larry Klein grew up together as Nyro fans. Determined to “reimagine” rather than regurgitate Nyro’s songs, they deploy a smorgasbord of guest stars from across the musical spectrum. Thus, there is something here for everyone to love — and hate. Cherry-picking is recommended and rewarded.
Chief among the duds is “Save the Country,” an antiwar anthem transformed into a listless ballad by Shawn Colvin and the blow-dried horn interludes of Chris Botti. But some of the tracks live up to the title of Map to the Treasure. Fans of Nyro will gravitate to the way Becca Stevens captures her gospel-inflected urgency on “The Confession.” Rickie Lee Jones — a kindred spirit of Nyro’s — aces the cautionary drug tale, “Been on a Train,” with woozy aplomb and a superb assist from saxophonist Chris Potter. Nyro’s “New York Tendaberry” can come off as too precious and self-absorbed, but it sits regally here in the rarefied air of vocal soprano Renee Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. A similar elevation occurs when soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter and vocalist Esperanza Spaulding transform “Under a Chinese Lamp” into an atmospheric tone poem. And the bluegrass styling of Alison Krauss and Union Station invest “And When I Die” with earthy religious foreboding, capped by spooky dobro riffs from Jerry Douglas.
Nyro died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49. Reopening the gifts she left behind — even those that have been questionably repackaged — is good for the soul.