Jazz pianist Billy Childs, vocalists Becca Stevens and Alicia Olatuja, and the Parker Quartet collaborated in a musical reinterpretation of the work of sixties singer-songwriter Laura Nyro in Sanders Theatre on Friday night. In this performance of songs from his Grammy Award-winning tribute to Nyro, Childs engaged not only with the diverse musicians on the stage but also with diverse musical traditions. Rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, and folk mingled and played off each other, while scraps of sung poetry and improvisatory solos on the piano, drums, and saxophone rose from and then subsided back into the swell of the music. The musicians traded glances and appreciative nods onstage, listening to each other and answering back with sound. The performance became a kind of conversation—but one in which most of the dialogue happened without words.
The ensemble’s sound reflected the wide musical vocabulary of Nyro herself, who began writing songs in her teens and produced her greatest hits in the late sixties with songs like “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “New York Tendaberry,” and “Save the Country.” She grew up listening not only to Smokey Robinson and Nina Simone but also to her mother’s Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy records. “I’m not interested in conventional limitations when it comes to my songwriting. For instance, I may bring a certain feminist perspective to my songwriting, because that’s how I see life. I’m interested in art, poetry, and music,” Nyro once said. “As that kind of artist, I can do anything,”. Her lyrics range from intensely personal reflections on motherhood and childhood memories to social commentary on war, poverty, and urban life.
Billy Childs, a jazz pianist who has so far won four Grammy Awards and who began performing publicly at the age of six, says he was introduced to Nyro’s work in his childhood by his older sister. Between his first encounter with her music at the age of eleven and the release of his 2014 tribute album, “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro,” Childs trained as a pianist and a composer. He became prominent in the eighties as a performer in the Los Angeles jazz community and received commissions for orchestral compositions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In this performance, Childs collaborated with the Harvard Music Department’s current Blodgett Artists-in-Residence, the Parker Quartet. The string quartet’s members trained together at the New England Conservatory of Music and have been part of the teaching faculty at Harvard since the fall of 2014.
Daniel T. Chong, one of the quartet’s violinists, said that the music for Friday’s concert took the ensemble outside of its usual repertoire and performance style. “The most challenging part has been that as a string quartet we play with the same three people ninety-percent of the time, and this is quite a big collaboration. It’s a matter of fitting into someone else’s band,” he said. “And the addition of a different genre of music has been challenging and rewarding at the same time.” According to Chong, even the quartet’s instruments took on a new character on Friday. “Since we’re an acoustic ensemble, being amped and playing with electric instruments is really a different ball game,” he said. “So how we listen to our sound and how the audience is experiencing our sound is what’s different, even more than how we’re actually playing.”
Chong added that the quartet’s members, though usually performers of pieces from the classical repertoire, have long been admirers of Childs’ music. “It’s in some ways very different from what we do, but in many ways it’s very similar to what we do because in the end we’re all performers and we’re all trying to communicate the music with as much impact as possible,” he said.
Of the songs the ensemble performed on Friday, Chong said that the one that he feels most drawn to is “Been on a Train,” Nyro’s fiercely melancholy description of a man’s death by drug overdose. “There’s something about that song that always hits me, that always reminds me that music is incredibly powerful,” he said. For him, as for Childs, Nyro’s music remains part of an ongoing conversation about what music can express.—Staff writer Elizabeth C. Keto can be reached at email@example.com.
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