Laura Nyro — mysterious, enigmatic, New York, high-school chum of folk-artist Janis Ian (who claimed Nyro reminded her of Morticia Adams) — was a singer-songwriter who toured with a band for the first time (as opposed to performing as a solo artist) in 1976.
In ’68, Nyro considered doing lead vocals for rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears, who, the following year, brought acclaim to Nyro’s original “And When I Die”. But when that plan didn’t transpire, it seems like plan B was to realize her body of work more fully orchestrated. But working with a writer whose trademark style features rubato vocal stylings, unanticipated tempo shifts, and a wealth of emo off-kilter interpretations requires expert musicians.
To that end, Nyro made excellent choices with her choice of musical accomplices: Ellen Seeling on trumpet, Jeff King and Jeanie Fineberg on sax, Michael Mainieri on vibes, et al. and John Tropea on electric guitar. Their performance on that initial 1976 tour is captured on 1977’s Season of Lights … Laura Nyro in Concert. At times, the occasional solo trumps the Nyro mindfulness she executes so flawlessly, but then that’s the nature of an ensemble album.
The Season of Lights platter features a generous sixteen-track helping of diverse Nyro tapas. The opener, “Money”, has always been one of my favorites, as it cunningly establishes a movable groove and gets the prize for the longest track at more than six minutes — plenty of time to incorporate Tropea’s accoutrements. That said, it’s not apologetically long — Nyro comps the minor seventh chords with purpose and her voice synchs perfectly with the architectural scaffolding of the lyrics, this brick spiraling chordal progression set against her derailed melody. Flower-child lyrics from “My struggle hurt but it turned me on / When my revolution came the chain was gone” to “Money, money, money, do you feel like a pawn in your own world?” complete the garland.
“Sweet Blindness”, covered by the Fifth Dimension, has a gospel-blues elegance that successfully merges with smart-aleck asides like “Please don’t tell my mother, I’m a saloon and a moonshine lover”. And along the lines of charm and whimsy comes “The Cat-Song”: “My name is Eddy, I am a cat and I sleep with one eye open watching the morning sail”.
“Midnight Blue”‘s images unfurl like wind-blown prayer flags in Katmandu: “There’s smoke in the kitchen / Shrimps curled the sun on black velvet / And high stars at the bottom of the world / Smile all you want”. This is pure and savory Nyro. “And When I Die” seems tame compared to the Blood, Sweat and Tears version, but as the composer, Nyro delves more fully into the gospel-plaited essence. Meanwhile, “I Am the Blues” is like a foreign film discovered through a peep-hole. “Cigarettes”, Nyro laments, “I’m all alone with my smoke and ashes”. Making excellent use of her pipes, Nyro lingers in the mood — insatiable slo-mo.
Contrasting the orchestrations of Season of Lights, Nyro’s eighth release, the ten-track Nested brandishes “straight, no chaser.” Sans the excess production, Nyro’s voice is allowed to shine more brilliantly and richly. And overall, these cuts are of a more confessional nature. “This is the song of communications / Sending out peace vibrations / Genuine cause to end our wars” begins “Mr. Blue (The Song of Communications)”. Nyro’s voice, oozing like warm maple, belies her protest stance. Yet, this stark statement-song wafts dreamily, despite the anachronistic time warp.
“Child in a Universe” is another haunting epiphany. “The earth is a grain in the galaxy / Could you send some peace on earth to a child of the universe”, Nyro sings, resting soulfully on each cadence, framing each with optimism. On the other hand, “The Sweet Sky” confides, “I’m still mixed up like a teenager/ Gone like the 4th of July for the sweet sky”. It’s like a page ripped from a teen’s diary.
“Rhythm and Blues” taunts like a Tin Pan Alley tribute — “Mama where’s my silver shoes, mama, where is my perfume?” — Nyro playing with lingo like a kitten chasing flailing yarn. Finally, “The Nest” is a revealing closer and ode to her newborn son: “Brown, shiny nest, up in a tree, maple and warm, like the nest in me”.
The album Nested traces Nyro’s silhouette from girl to woman to mother while underscoring her wordsmanship and full-bodied voice. For Nyro purists, this is the pulp. For Nyro cultists and collectors, Season of Lights, is the blended, salt-rimmed aperitif.