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CD REVIEW: Christine Spero - Spero Plays Nyro
By Dan Cohen - 01/30/2016 - 09:20 AM EST

Artist: Christine Spero
Album: Spero Plays Nyro
Genre: Blues/Jazz
Sounds Like: Joni Mitchell, early Billy Joel
Technical Grade: 10/10
Production/Musicianship Grade: 10/10
Commercial Value: 10/10
Overall Talent Level: 10/10
Best Songs: And When I Die, Eli's Coming, Laura and John
CD Review: The Christine Spero Group does not suffer from lack of fire. Tribute albums can sometimes carry a whiff of the museum, or perhaps mausoleum-- dutiful recreations of past masters, but minus the fire, the passion. But with Spero it's quite the opposite. Her latest effort, Spero Plays Nyro-- a tribute to the late, great songwriter Laura Nyro-- is a labor of love, yes, but also of skill and imagination and fire-- a beautiful, surprising, gorgeously arranged and passionately played record with inventive takes on many of Nyro's familiar tunes as well as lively versions of some of the more obscure ones.

I'm sorry to say I was not all that familiar with Laura Nyro before this record came across my desk. Her music seemed to be strictly the province of shy girls with mousy brown hair, listening in the privacy of their bedrooms. Well, she certainly has that quality, and that audience, but her music deserves and rewards a deeper listen. Nyro's tunes are constantly churning and changing in unexpected ways, yet within carefully crafted song structures. She manages to make pop songs that cry and sing, that explore worlds, that 'contain multitudes', to borrow Walt Whitman's coinage. She's a bit like Billy Joel, or Joni Mitchell in her Court and Spark, big band period, but quirkier, more exploratory. For me, to be honest, her compositions call to mind no one more than Franz Schubert, the classical Austrian composer who was also able, like Nyro, to tap into some bottomless well of melody, creating songs that meander but somehow make sense, that feel complete but rarely repeat themselves, that are full of surprising harmonic choices and abrupt shifts in tempo and mood that somehow feel just right, just what was needed. It's a rare quality. Most songwriters, even the good ones, find a melody and stick to it, stick to a familiar structure, for our sake as much as theirs. Humans like repetition in their music. They respond to it. They dance to it. Rare is the writer who can write a song that flows like a river and carries us along through many landscapes, soundscapes, and moods. Laura Nyro is one of those.

And rarely, too, is a performer as well matched to a project. Spero shares with Nyro a fine voice, a bit warmer and huskier than the original, and a wonderful fluidity at the piano. Her arrangements are fabulous, close to the originals in some cases and wildly different in others. She does a sly, slow-funk version of 'And When I Die', perhaps Nyro's most recognizable tune, that gives the song a whole new spin, far from the energetic two-step of the original, and completely different from Blood Sweat and Tears' bombastic yet wonderful version that first brought the song to our attention. She also tucks in a few finely wrought originals like Laura and John, a tribute to her favorite musicians. The identity of Laura is self-evident, but the John I had assumed would be John Lennon, influencer of untold millions of songwriters. But no, her muse is that other titan of musical invention, John Coltrane. Laura and John is on the mellower side of Coltrane's rep, would fit right in on the classic album he made with singer Johnny Hartman. You can also hear a bit of his influence in the fine sax-playing of Elliot Spero, especially on tracks like Money and Billy's Blues.

Her whole band is exceptional. The rhythm section is smoking hot, Scott Petito's bass clean and clear and Pete O'Brien's drums finding a deep, warm, relaxed pocket reminiscent of Jim Keltner or Russ Kunkel, the great LA drummers of the 70s who backed Carole King and, yes, Joni Mitchell. The horns and especially the sax playing is stellar throughout. She's even got back-up singers, who shine on Emmie and others.
Take a ride with Nyro, courtesy of the Christine Spero Group, and find the shy girl with the mousy brown hair that, as it turns out, resides in all of us.

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