Listening Booth: Laura Nyro, “Season of Lights … Laura Nyro in Concert”
Christmas Eve, 1970. I was at the Fillmore East to see Laura Nyro. A month earlier, Nyro had released her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, and it had taken up more or less permanent residence on my turntable, alongside all of her previous albums. There I was, about to see the artist whose music spoke to me more profoundly on a personal level than any other, and by my side was the woman for whom I’d been nurturing a deep crush for several years. In other words, it couldn’t have been a more perfect evening. Did I mention that it was Christmas Eve in New York City? If you’ve been there, you know the silent magic that the holy night brings to the great city.
All was right in my world, but that was certainly not true of the world as a whole. Nixon was in the White House; Vietnam was raging on. Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King were recently dead. A few lines from the album’s most powerful statement, “Christmas In My Soul,” pretty much summed up the condition of the world in those days:
“Black Panther brothers bound in jail
Chicago Seven and the justice scale
Homeless Indian on Manhattan Isle
All God’s sons have gone to trial
And all God’s love is out of style
If you get the idea that although the specifics may have changed, the world hasn’t made much progress in the last 38 years, you’re pretty close to the truth. But what happened in the venerable music hall that night wasn’t really a concert. As the years have rolled by, I have come to think of it as a healing, a cleansing. I’m not sure how that small woman, alone at a piano decorated with a single red rose, managed to cast her spell, but it was a powerful experience that has stayed with me to this day.
Incidentally, the opening act that night was a young songwriter by the name of Jackson Browne. It would be more than a year before he released his first album. I was interested in seeing him because he had placed two very promising songs (“These Days” and “Shadow Dream Song”) on a recent Tom Rush album. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that Nyro and Browne were something more than just colleagues during the tour.
The following year, Nyro released her classic Gonna Take A Miracle album, which she recorded with Labelle. It was her only album of non-original material. By then, she was married, and unhappy about the way her image was being marketed. She announced her retirement from the music business at the age of 24. She made a comeback five years later, but to tell you the truth, the years had put a lot of distance between us, and I didn’t follow her career very closely after that. I was, however, shocked and broken-hearted when I learned of her death from cancer in 1997. She was only 49.
When Nyro made her comeback in 1976, her stature was such that every musician in New York City wanted to work with her. She had never toured with a band before, but decided to take that step this time around. She was able to enlist some of the finest musicians on the scene for the tour. The core group included guitarist John Tropea, bassist Richard Davis, vibes player Mike Mainieri, and drummer Andy Newmark, all of whom were noted session players. To that esteemed group she added percussionist Nydia Mata and a three-piece horn section. Davis and Tropea had played on her 1975 comeback album, Smile. Among the band’s credits were gigs with Miles Davis, Van Morrison, Billie Holiday, Buddy Rich, John Lennon, and Sly and the Family Stone. Nyro wasn’t inventing anything new; jazz rock and fusion was very popular at that time, and Joni Mitchell had preceded her in exploring the jazz idiom some four years earlier.
A live album from the tour was planned from the very beginning; after all, live albums had recently done wonders for the careers of the Allman Brothers and Peter Frampton. Columbia intended it to be a two-record set, and sent out promos. For some reason, the decision was made to release it in 1977 as a single album, Season of Lights, with only 10 of the 16 tracks that had been planned. Worse yet, some of the instrumental jams were edited. In 1993, Sony Japan finally released the full album as it was originally intended, but it has never been released in the U.S. until now. Thankfully, Iconoclassic Records has beautifully remastered the album and presented it in its full glory under the title Season of Lights … Laura Nyro In Concert. The package includes extensive liner notes by Michele Kort, author of the Nyro biography Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro.
Highlights abound. It is nearly impossible for me to choose a couple of songs to represent the album, because I want you to hear every note of this work. There are songs from every phase of Nyro’s career to that point. She performs three songs accompanied only by her piano, as if to reaffirm, in Kort’s words “that (Nyro) didn’t need a band, even if she enjoyed playing with one.” To demonstrate, I offer up the sublime “When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag,” from Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, and the full-band arrangement of “The Confession,” from Eli and the 13th Confession.
In a year that has offered beautiful reissues from the likes of Dennis Wilson (Pacific Ocean Blue), and Otis Redding (Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul), this album rises to the top of the list. Buy it, and then go out and get the original versions of all of her albums. Check out songs that were written for her, like Jackson Browne’s “That Girl Could Sing,” and Todd Rundgren’s “Baby Let’s Swing.” Listen to Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates album and marvel about how it was informed by Nyro’s work. When all that’s done, mourn the loss of this great talent, and listen some more.