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Tapping the ‘Treasure’ of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro

Billy Childs remembers the only time he saw Laura Nyro, the influential singer and songwriter whose albums became part of the soundtrack to his boyhood. She was performing at the Strand in Redondo Beach during the mid-'90s, and for a musician who grew up adoring her recorded works, the evening proved a sobering experience.

“It was near when she was getting sick,” he said, speaking by phone from his home in Pasadena. “She seemed a little bit less — like she didn’t have her energy.”

Now, Childs is putting together his own live Nyro show — one that honors the artist in her prime. Friday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the pianist will join vocalists Lisa Fischer, Becca Stevens and Moira Smiley in interpreting Nyro’s classic songs.

In a sense, the show is a culmination of a musical journey that Childs began half a century ago. The three-time Grammy-winner grew up in Los Angeles, near Washington and Fairfax, in a home with two older sisters who introduced him to the possibilities of music.

One, named Joy, turned him onto soul and jazz. The other, Kirsten, turned him onto Nyro, the singer and pianist of the 1960s and ‘70s whose songs became popular in the hands of others. Elton John and Todd Rundgren have credited Nyro as an influence.

Having been inspired by her songs for decades, Childs has recorded a new album of Nyro’s music, “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro.” Working with producer Larry Klein, who is known for his collaborations with Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin and Luciana Souza, Childs’ album of 10 pieces features Chris Botti, Alison Krauss and Dianne Reeves.

“The way she influenced me was through her piano playing,” Childs said. “What drew me in was the tune.”

He wasn’t the only one drawn in. Nyro, a New York City native, sold her song “And When I Die” to Peter, Paul and Mary for $5,000 when she was 17. Her debut album, “More Than a New Discovery,” provided material for other artists, notably the 5th Dimension and Barbra Streisand.

In 1996, Nyro was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she died the following year at age 49. For Childs, her music hasn’t aged in the nearly two decades since.

“I just like the scenarios she created,” he said. “Some of the messages were large issues like protests and nonviolence songs, and others were about everyday [things] like being disappointed in a lover or saying goodbye to a mother. I like everything.”

Childs, an arranger and composer, is considered a diverse and prolific artist. He’s performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Sting, Wynton Marsalis, Botti, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and others.

At age 6, he began piano lessons. At 16, he started attending the Community School of Performing Arts, a prestigious music program sponsored by USC, and studied music theory and piano. After apprenticing with Freddie Hubbard and J.J. Johnson, he began his solo jazz recording career in 1988.

“When we first started to create jazz in a different format in 1989, Billy was one of the first artists to help me build the jazz,” said Aaron Egigian, Segerstrom’s senior director of music programming. “I consider him one of the most thoughtful and inventive musicians, and I think it’s an extraordinary work he’s doing by utilizing Laura’s words. It’s an unmissable project.”

Childs said the concert is not an imitation of Nyro, as he is not doing something exactly the way she performed. Rather the concert is a prism of his experience listening to Nyro’s blend of Broadway-inspired melodies, jazz improvisations and socially conscious lyrics.

When Childs shared his vision with Klein, the two discussed the album’s casting. Each song pairs a vocalist with a song that Childs cherishes.

Rickie Lee Jones is on “Been on a Train.” Colvin and Botti are paired on “Save the Country.” And jazz singer Dianne Reeves performs “To a Child.”

Before Friday’s concert, he’ll rehearse for a few hours, but said too much rehearsing is not necessary, since he frequently plays with the band.

Childs said he wants the audience to walk away with something after the show.

“I just want them to go in there and be transported and to listen to music and go into another realm and enjoy themselves,” he said.

IF YOU GO

What: “Billy Childs: Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro”

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: $29 to $89

Information: (714) 556-2787 or visit scfta.org


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