When Laura Nyro Conquered Japan

A classic live import from 1994 showcases the folk soul legend’s massive global reach in the years prior to her untimely passing

Laura Nyro (Art: Ron Hart)

Laura Nyro needs only one note: From the first note of each of her songs, she has us.

Nyro’s soulful vocals create an emotional space for us to inhabit because she herself dwells in her songs, creating a palpable sonic spaciousness with her free-flowing soul jazz piano chords, and her ethereal vocals that take flight or that swoop into the shadows of our souls.

Nyro blends the spiraling doo wop of the street corner singers of her native Bronx with the introspective—sometimes dark and sometimes brilliantly dazzling—lyrics of folk, the shimmering harmonies of gospel, and the darting melodies of jazz in her songs, as well as in the songs she interprets. Laura Nyro—who seems always at one with her instruments, her voice and her piano—carries us out of ourselves, transporting us to another plane in which we, for at least a few moments, bathe in “a little magic/a little kindness.”

 

VIDEO: The 5th Dimension “Stoned Soul Picnic”

Laura Nyro died far too young at age 49 on April 8, 1997, following a bout with ovarian cancer, the cancer from which her mother also died. She started playing music when she was five-years-old, and then in her teenage years she was hanging out with those harmony groups in the Bronx. Between 1967 and 1971, she released one album per year, some of them containing songs such “And When I Die,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and “Eli’s Coming,” among others, recorded as hits by artists such as Blood, Sweat & Tears, The 5th Dimension, and Three Dog Night. In 1971, at age 24, Nyro stopped recording, largely out of her discomfort with the efforts of her label to turn her into a celebrity.

She returned in 1976 with Smile, and she released three more studio albums between 1978 and 1993, when her final album, Walk the Dog and Light the Light was released. In 2001, Angel in the Dark (recorded in 1994-1995) was released posthumously. In the years following her death, several live albums also appeared, keeping her legacy alive and introducing Nyro to scores of new listeners. 

One of those live albums, An Evening with Laura Nyro (Live in Japan 1994), was originally issued in 2003 and only in Japan. It’s our great fortune that Omnivore is now releasing the album as Trees of the Ages: Laura Nyro Live in Japan; it features sixteen tracks recorded at Nyro’s performance at Kintetsu Hall in Osaka on February 22, 1994; five additional tracks were recorded on February 18 and February 22, 1994, at On Air West, Shibuya, Tokyo. The recording captures Nyro’s dazzling lyrical brilliance and her shining musical eloquence, carrying her sweet soulful voice back to us, allowing her graceful earthiness and mystical spirit to wash over us in its cascading beauty.

There’s a quiet intimacy in Nyro’s performances on Trees of Ages, as if she’s sitting at her piano in a small club instead of in a large concert hall. Her spirit flows through the speakers in a palpable fashion, the crystalline purity of the vocals and piano seeping into our souls. She’s backed in these performances by the glorious harmonies of Diane Wilson, Dian Sorrell, and Diane Garisto, and the stunning beauty of the songs colors our hearts long after the final notes have died out.

Laura Nyro Trees of the Ages: Laura Nyro Live in Japan, Omnivore Recordings 2021

Nyro is as brilliant an interpreter as she is a songwriter, and she takes us to church with the soul standards “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Ooh Baby Baby,” flowing along an exquisitely measured tempo that invites listeners to enter the songs where they will and squeezing every bit of emotional expression out of the spaces between the notes. The meandering minor chord “Lite a Flame (The Animal Rights Song)” pleads for listeners to engage in a cause about which she became passionate later in her life, and the sprightly jazz mover “Walk the Dog & Light the Light (Song of the Road)” captures the rhythms of the life of a troubadour and the rhythms of daily life in the city.

On “The Japanese Restaurant Song” she cycles through her life as it’s been played out in scenes from a Japanese restaurant, while the smoky “Louise’s Church” celebrates the lives and work of women: “Sappho was a poet/Billie was a real musician/Frida drew the moon/I’m going by Louise’s Church/She built the city/Art of grace & style.” Nyro wrote the song for sculptor Louise Nevelson, who designed the chapel of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City. Nyro slows down the tempo on one of her first songs “And When I Die,” as she caresses every word and phrase, but her take here on “Wedding Bell Blues” is as jaunty as on her first album More Than a New Discovery. The medley “Trees of Ages/Emmie” blends sweetly as a paean to nature and to love, and the song places us in the moments in which Nyro celebrates the “great green harmonies” of the trees and her enduring love of Emily/Emmie.

Trees of the Ages: Laura Nyro Live in Japan offers us a gift, another chance to be in the presence of Laura Nyro and her enthralling and enchanting music. We can be grateful for every chance we get to hear her voice and her way with a song. Of all the songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s, Laura Nyro was the most magical, knowing intuitively how to capture and express the elatedness of love or the world weariness of despair in songs that remain forever in our hearts.

 

VIDEO: Laura Nyro American Dreamer box set trailer

2021 is Laura Nyro’s year, for on July 30th Madfish/Snapper Music released American Dreamer, an 8-LP, limited edition deluxe box set which includes 7 original studio albums (More Than a New Discovery, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendberry, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, Gonna Take a Miracle, Smile, and Nested), as well as an original album of rarities and live recordings.

In September 2021, Omnivore will release Go Find the Moon: The Audition Tape, that features the 18-year-old Nyro’s audition for Milt Okun, who eventually produced her first album, More Than a New Discovery, and Artie Mogull, who became her manager. This album contains not only the first song she performed, “And When I Die,” but also several other songs and her versions of classics that have never before been released.

 

 

 

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Henry Carrigan

Henry Carrigan is a musician and music journalist who writes for No Depression, Living Blues, Folk Alley, Bluegrass Situation; he has written for several newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's the author of a book on gospel music, Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life (Paraclete Press).

2 thoughts on “When Laura Nyro Conquered Japan

  • August 2, 2021 at 2:17 pm
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    Thank you Harry for writing about Laura Nyro. Never one better, even Joni knows that.

    Reply
  • August 2, 2021 at 5:48 pm
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    Love this article about Laura Nyro, a true legend. I was lucky enough to see her perform back in 1985 at a little club in Pawling, NY. I sat literally right next to her and listened to her play piano and sing all her hits. I was expecting them to sound like I heard them on the radio. Instead, she sang them slowly with her beautiful soulful voice. I was blown away and I’ll never forget that night.

    Reply

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