There were two Laura Nyros. The best-known was a teenage pop singer and composer of striking originality, creator of such '60s hits as "Stoney End," "Stoned Soul Picnic," and "Wedding Bell Blues."
That Nyro, once praised for her song craft by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and jazz genius Miles Davis, retired in obscurity in the '80s, made a comeback with a well-crafted album of new songs in the mid-'90s, and then died in 1997.
Let me tell you about a lesser-known Nyro, whom I was fortunate enough to hear on a college tour 30 years ago - and whose spirit you can hear on Angel in the Dark, a posthumous collection just released on Rounder Records.
That Nyro was more than a pop diva. She was one of the most overwhelmingly gifted jazz vocalists I've ever heard. Unlike most jazz singers, Nyro chose as her foundation for improvisation old soul songs by Smokey Robinson, Carol King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and the '50s doo-wop group The Flamingos.
She didn't scat like an Ella Fitzgerald; her models were Nina Simone and perhaps Billie Holiday. Every word was freshly phrased. I could swear I heard a trumpeter like Miles Davis coolly soloing behind her - but there was no trumpeter that night.
Only a few brief trumpet solos by Randy Brecker are heard on "Angel in the Dark." But there is a stunning version of Billie Holiday's signature song, George Gershwin's "Embraceable You." There's a dramatic rendition of Burt Bacharach's "Walk On By," and a breathlessly suspenseful "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"
Instrumental support is minimal, mainly Nyro on piano, with various studio musicians contributing sparse electric guitar, bass, and drums.
The album is a refreshing change from Nyro's previous albums (all available on Columbia Records). Often overproduced and frenetically paced, her Columbia albums starting in 1966, when the singer was 19, were often shrilly unfocused. Clearly influenced by Aretha Franklin and other African-American gospel singers, Nyro often suffered from overemoted, self-consciously "arty" vocals.
A recent Nyro "greatest hits" CD from Columbia, Time and Love: The Essential Masters, skillfully culls 16 hits largely from the '60s that have been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to The Fifth Dimension.
The Nyro revealed on this new album is a woman in her 40s, a parent, a seasoned performer who finally achieved a masterful synthesis of gospel, soul, jazz, and pop that has often been emulated (think of Rickie Lee Jones and Tori Amos) but never equaled.
The 16 songs are split between her original material and what she called her "heartbeat songs," '50s and '60s pop with flair. Their lyrics voice a range of counterculture attitudes linked to the '60s. They're enjoyable, thoughtful fare.
But the album's triumphs are the "heartbeat songs," particularly Smokey Robinson's "Ooh, Baby, Baby," incandescently alive with sorrow and longing. Her cover of "La La Means I Love You" by the Delphonics is cotton candy - it seems too light to be real, but sweet indeed.
Producer Eileen Silver-Lillywhite did an exquisite job producing this final testimony to Nyro. It will come as a revelation to many young Lilith Fair fans and delight those who remember a '60s pop star who straddled the worlds of gospel, soul, and jazz with flair.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor