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.