The combination of a unique and beautifully au courant voice with an equally rare and manifold composing talent makes for compelling listening. When the voice is that of vocalist/songwriter Mark Winkler and the songs are by Laura Nyro, the resulting project reaches criticality rapidly. Winkler has been composing and recording for the better part of 30 years, releasing ten recordings and penning upwards to 150 songs in that time. His previous recording, Sweet Spot (Cafe Pacific Records, 2011) was praised widely and featured some of Winkler's most recent composing.
Presently, Winkler turns his attention to a project that has be percolating for some time. Laura Nyro (1947-1997) was a prominent '60s singer/songwriter who composed several notable songs made famous for other artists: Three Dog Night's "Eli's Coming," Blood, Sweat & Tears' (and Peter, Paul & Mary's) "And When I Die," and the Fifth Dimension's "Stone Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues," as well as writing songs covered by Barbra Streisand, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. She was a part of the famous Brill Building machine, adding jazz and folk inflections to the "sound" during its heyday.
Winkler takes Nyro's "hybrid" Brill Building sound, adding his own elegance. The lion's share of the selections are arranged by Winkler's long-collaborating pianist Eli Brueggemann, who thoughtfully marries instruments and solos effectively into the families of these Nyro tunes. "And When I Die" is propelled by an assertive bass figure plucked by Dan Lutz, who is the common thread drawn through all of the ensemble pieces. "Stone Soul Picnic" has a gentle funk to it. Arranged by Winkler and pianist on this song, Rich Eames, "Picnic" is transformed into a light and hip stroll, well-suited to Winkler's beautifully unusual voice. Pat Kelly's guitar is svelte and precise, supplementing the song's jazz bona fides.
Winkler and arranger Eames make "California Shoeshine Boy" a gospel romp down the aisle at the church of rhythm and blues. Brueggemann's solo is two-fisted and muscular, challenging Winkler to his edgiest singing. The arrangement of "Time and Love" is cleverly based on pianist Ahmad Jamal's performance of "Moonlight in Vermont," while "Sweet Blindness" follows the same formula as the opening piece with a slick 4/4 stroll, accented by Bob Sheppard's tenor saxophone dueling with Nolan Shaheed's trumpet. John Mills and Elmer Hopper join Winkler with some swing vocals.
"Save The Country" and "Billy's Blues" are Winkler duets with pianist Eric Reed, who solidly puts the soul into the pieces, pushing Winkler to some of his best singing on the disc. The star among stars is Winkler's exceptional voice, one possessing that indefinable quality that makes it memorable without exactly understanding what is so superb about it. The Laura Nyro Project betrays the care and love Winkler and company put into the session; this is an excellent vocal outing by any measure.
And When I Die; Stone Soul Picnic; California Shoeshine Boy; Time and
Love; Sweet Blindness; He’s a Runner; Emmie; Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp;
Buy and Sell; Save the Country; Billy’s Blues.
Mark Winkler: vocals; Eli Brueggemann: piano (1, 3-6, 8) organ
(1, 5); Rick Eames: piano (2, 3); Jamieson Trotter: piano (7); Eric
Reed: piano (10, 11); Dan Lutz: bass; Pat Kelly: guitar (2); Anthony
Wilson: guitar (7); Larry Koonse: guitar (5, 8, 9); Peter Buck: drums,
percussion (1, 3-6, 8, 9); Dave Tull: drums, percussion (2);
Michael Smith: percussion (7, 8); Bob Sheppard: tenor saxophone (1, 4,
5), flute(8); Nolan Shaheed: trumpet (5); Mitch Ellis: background
vocals (2); Cheryl Bentyne: background vocals (7); John Mills:
background vocals (5); Elmer Hopper: background vocals (5).