By: Andrew Gilbert
As an artist rooted in jazz, pianist and arranger Billy Childs knows that the best way to honor another musician is not to try to recreate their sound. On his new concept album exploring the music of Laura Nyro, he takes a deeply personal journey on which many paths converge.
Working with producer Larry Klein -- who’s known for his collaborations with A-list singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, Melody Gardot, and Luciana Souza -- Childs arranges 10 poetically charged tunes by Nyro, whose death from cancer in 1997 still feels raw.
From the blockbuster opening track featuring the great soprano Renée Fleming tearing through “New York Tendaberry” with Yo-Yo Ma’s unmistakably lyrical cello, it’s clear this is an opulent project overstuffed with talent, emotion and musical ideas.
Superficially, “Map to the Treasure” resembles Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning 2007 album “River: The Joni Letters,” which was also produced by Klein. But Hancock was essentially discovering Joni Mitchell’s music. For Childs, a faithful Nyro fan who turned Klein onto her music when they were teenagers in the early ‘70s, the project cuts deeply, like only the music of your adolescence can. Their mutual love of Nyro’s songs provides a perfect meeting ground, like the dreamy dance between Esperanza Spalding’s vocals and Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax on “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp.”
Childs and Klein, a top-shelf jazz bassist, first gained national recognition in trumpet star Freddie Hubbard’s blazing band in the early 1980s. Their career paths diverged after that, with Klein eventually making a name for himself as a producer, while Childs recorded a series of acclaimed albums showcasing his improvisation prowess and passionately lyrical compositions.
In recent years, Childs has concentrated on writing richly textured chamber jazz, and he brings a similar instrumental palette to Nyro’s songs, with a string quartet, jazz rhythm section, electric guitar, and Carol Robbins’ rhythmically assured harp on every track.
More than anything, this is an album that succeeds due to brilliant casting, as each song pairs a singular vocalist with a song that Childs cherishes.
Soul diva Ledisi infuses “Stoned Soul Picnic” with sweetness and light, while jazz queen Dianne Reeves, a longtime Childs’ confederate, gives “To a Child” a tenderly majestic reading.
Childs and Klein coaxed rhythm and blues great Lisa Fischer out of her comfort zone as a backup singer to give a tour-de-force interpretation of the title track, and they expertly deploy Ricki Lee Jones on “Been on a Train,” a shadowy nightmare ride into addiction. At the moment, my favorite track features folk and jazz singer Becca Stevens waxing Dionysian on “The Confession.”
If there’s one thing the album’s missing, it’s a little space to take in all of the roiling emotion and sonic information. A piece or two featuring Childs alone at the piano with a singer could have provided more room to absorb Nyro’s richly allusive lyrics. But that’s a quibble, as there’s not a track I would trade. A true act of devotion, “Map to the Treasure” delivers exactly what it promises, as Childs honors Nyro by revealing his own musical riches.
Childs premieres the project on Saturday, Sept. 20, at the Monterey Jazz Festival with violinist Jeremy Cohen’s Quartet San Francisco and special guests Lisa Fischer, Becca Stevens, and Shawn Colvin (whose version of “Save the Children” with trumpeter Chris Botti is yet another highpoint).