Jazz pianists looking for a Grammy-winning concept may want to consider recording a Laura Nyro tribute album. Today, the late pianist-singer-composer has been all but forgotten. But between 1968 and 1970, Nyro had comet-like success with a trail of soulful pop hits. These included Sweet Blindness, Wedding Bell Blues, And When I Die, Blowin' Away, Eli's Comin', Lu, Goodbye Joe, Stoney End, Stoned Soul Picnic and others. Captivated by girl-group harmonies of the early 1960s and music of African-American churches, Nyro fused Tin Pan Alley, spirituals and jazz to produce a powerful catalog of work that continues to haunt and reverberate today.
By 1971, exhausted at age 24, Nyro decided to take a break from the music business. She would record again in 1976, 1978, 1984 and 1993, but by then the music and audience tastes had shifted. Movie soundtrack offers followed in the 1990s along with repeated invitations to perform on late night talk shows. Painfully shy and allergic to self-promotion, Nyro politely took rain checks. Then in 1996, Nyro was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year later at age 49 of the same disease that had claimed the life of her mother at the exact same age.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, what made Nyro's music so special was its outsider-on-the-inside feel. Unlike the formulaic and sugary fare dominating pop radio at the time, Nyro's compositions bucked the system and proved that sophistication could sell if dense-packed inside clever pop hooks. Nyro's lyrics had edge, a female sensibility and enormous enthusiasm, while her music was exciting and fresh. There was so much punch behind each track that you got the sense that songs had been belted from the rooftops rather than captured in a studio. Nyro also made great use of overdubbing, laying down a lead track and then adding gospel-like backup vocals. This technique is most evident on her recordings of Stoned Soul Picnic, Blowin' Away and Lu.
Nyro's songs continue to grab and hold, mostly because they are passionate, honest and spring-loaded with shifting melodies and varying tempos. Her revival-meeting, gospel-meets-cakewalk pop songs became hits for The Fifth Dimension, Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat & Tears, and others. Her piano-jazz sense likely came from her father Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. She also cited John Coltrane as an influence.
But there was more to Nyro than pop hooks. She was a woman singing about things that mattered to women and did so in a womanly way, before it was fashionable to do so. This was a brand new concept in 1968, pre-dating Carole King's Tapestry by three years. Said Nyro, "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" You can read more at her official site here.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a beautiful period for women in folk-pop music. On the recording scene were towering originals like Nyro, King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Mary Travers, Janis Joplin, Odetta, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Janis Ian and others. Sadly, this female force is missing from music today, and I miss it. Which brings me to my point: All of Nyro's songs lend themselves to jazz interpretation. A smart jazz pianist could take these songs and others, and turn them into gorgeous, heart-felt classics.
For any jazz pianist reading this who waves off the idea with the excuse that Nyro's music has been done already, the truth is it hasn't. After doing a little research, I found that there are no jazz interpretations of Sweet Blindness, only two versions of Wedding Bell Blues (one is by organist Groove Holmes), six version of And When I Die (one was on Chet Baker's Blood, Chet and Tears album), six interpretations of Eli's Comin' (one by Don Ellis), only Carmen McRae recorded Goodbye Joe, and there are just 10 versions of Stoned Soul Picnic.
To my knowledge, there are no jazz tribute albums to Nyro's music, just a pop album called Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro. Not sure her music would make the leap to jazz? Download or buy Time and Love: The Essential Masters. Or better yet, download or buy her 1968 masterpiece, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, which includes one of my favorite Nyro compositions, Luckie.
As you can see, the field is wide open. All a superb pianist has to do is listen hard to her music, read up on her to understand her soul, record her compositions with enormous spiritual feeling and depth, put her picture on the album's cover, submit the CD to the Grammy judges and, bam, you'll be up on stage in no time clutching your golden gramophone.
Just be sure to thank me when you get there.