Recalling Irene Kral

Recalling Irene Kral

by Kirk Silsbee

copyright © 2005 Kirk Silsbee

I don't cherish a record store because it has six feet of Miles Davis or John Coltrane CDs; that's almost to be expected. No, I get excited if a store can show me something new by lesser-known but choice artists like Lucky Thompson, Slim Gaillard, Jimmy Rowles, or the late singer Irene Kral. If a store stocks her CDs, the card will likely be misspelled 'Krall,' as though she were related to Diana, and the bin will probably be empty. Spotting her current Just For Now (Jazzed Media) boosted my estimation of Tower Records.

Some of the most heinous crimes are carried out on bandstands these days in the name of jazz singing. People with unattractive voices — or no voices at all — with no conception of phrasing and dynamics, or what constitutes suitable material, have thriving careers. Worse yet are the human horns, intent on vocalizing the musical excesses of saxophonists and trumpeters. They don't know that the best horn players try to attain the quality of the human voice.

It's worth recalling Irene Kral's musical virtues, which are now largely absent from jazz singing.

Kral, who died in 1978, was one of the greatest jazz singers to come out of Los Angeles. A native of Cicero, Illinois, L.A. was her adopted home. Although she was already a professional upon settling here in the early '60s, L.A. served as her finishing school. She had a medium-dynamic alto voice with a faintly world-weary patina. A hint of vibrato and a judicious sense of melisma made her ballads, with their held notes and sometimes dead slow tempos, something quite special. Her diction and enunciation were textbook in their clarity. At its most mature stage, her art celebrated the song, not the singer, and always put the story in the foreground.

As a performer, she had poise and a quiet authority. She stood fairly still and often closed her eyes on ballads. She addressed her audiences between songs, noting the title, its composer and her accompanists. Kral made confidants of her listeners. In that, the younger Krall and many other singers of her generation could learn valuable lessons from Irene Kral. She cultivated a repertoire of fine but seldom-sung songs, by the likes of Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman, Johnny Mandel, Bob Dorough, Blossom Dearie, Lionel Bart and an emerging songwriter, Dave Frishberg. Songs that Kral introduced to the jazz world would often turn up in the live sets of Carmen McRae, whose patronage dated back at least as far as a referral to the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra in '57.

That job lasted two years, and it was Kral's boot camp. She sang three songs per set with a road band whose purpose was to showcase the leader's screaming trumpet. It started loud and finished louder. But Kral's struggles didn't go unnoticed. In an interview with producer Ralph Jungheim, Kral told of a night in Chicago: "Billie Holiday came to see me and said, 'That band's too fuckin' loud. It breaks my heart to see you singin' up there and you can't hear anything you sing. I'm gonna tell that motherfucker. I been callin' on you.' I wanted to crawl into a hole and die because Maynard was standing right there." Along with this recognition from Lady Day, Kral got some recording dates and a husband, trumpeter Joe Burnett, out of her Ferguson tenure.

She had been recording since '54 but her releases were sporadic. Better Than Anything (with the Junior Mance Trio on Ava, '63) swung though her hip-kitty glibness sometimes surfaced. Her beauty-and-the-beast duet with Jack Sheldon on "The Rain in Spain" (from drummer Shelly Manne's My Fair Lady With the UN-original Cast on Capitol) was a radio hit with L.A. jazz deejays.

Ironically, in her early years, she made the same vocal faux pas committed by so many contemporary singers. In the mid '60s, Kral was singing at Shelly's Manne-Hole (the jazz club in L.A. from '60 to '72) and composer Don Specht heard her one night. "She came over to me," Specht recently recalled for me, "and said, 'Well, what did you think?' I guess I'd had one too many scotches but I said, 'Irene, stop singing like Miles Davis. You're so busy singing like a horn that the lyrics go out the window and you're not telling the story.' So I went back a few nights later and Shelly said to me, 'What did you tell her? She's really singing now! The songs make sense.'"

Specht wrote for Kral an arrangement of "Like Someone in Love" for a 30-piece orchestra; he recorded the instrumental track, and she recorded her vocal over it. He wanted to write an album for her but Burnett, who produced her in the '60s, wasn't keen on the idea. The unreleased song, an oddity in her discography, has been a favorite among L.A. musicians ever since.

The current Just For Now is a live San Diego set from June '75, during which Kral is in the capable hands of a Mike Wofford-led rhythm section. His piano work is full of movement, even on the ballads. He was and is a superb accompanist (June Christy and Sarah Vaughan were two of his long-term employers). On Frishberg's bright bossa — a form she excelled at — "Wheelers and Dealers," Wofford spins out busy figures that run with her and nip at her heels while Harvey Newmark's steady bass notes lope and spread, contrasting nicely. Kral is in fine voice: controlled, inspired and having audible fun. The title tune is a poignant ballad by Andre and Dory Previn, another fine addition to her song bouquet. Only Stevie Wonder's "Sunshine of My Life," over-exposed even then, is a throwaway. Otherwise, the collection is a welcome addition to her oeuvre.

Kral's apex remains her '74 collaboration with pianist Alan Broadbent, Where is Love?, an album of introspective ballads with only piano and voice, unheard of for the era. Broadbent's accompaniment is beautiful and spare. He lifts her, carries her, backs off and lets her glide, lights her way with chords or lets the silence speak. Her deceptive simplicity — which hid the years of effort it took to achieve — and the sophisticated, out-of-the-way material set their work apart from everything else in vocal jazz at the time.

It was Kral who willed the album into existence. Back then, she was an occasional singer raising two daughters in Van Nuys. Her home base was Donte's in North Hollywood, where Valley jazz musicians hung out, played and went to hear visiting brethren like Dizzy, Lee Konitz or Clark Terry. Despite the clubhouse vibe, Kral often sang there to small and sometimes indifferent audiences. (One listener, Clint Eastwood, would later include a tune from Better Than Anything on the soundtrack to his '95 movie, Bridges of Madison County.)

Kral paid for the Where is Love? session out of her own pocket and shopped the tape everywhere. The few interested labels all wanted to 'sweeten' the material by heaping string tracks onto the songs. Kral's uniform response — as her friend Lee Wilder told me — was a curt "fuck you." Gerry McDonald of the small Choice Records was the exception. Vindication, in the form of a 1977 Grammy nomination, was Kral's.

C o m m e n t s

Irene Kral--recalling 1 of 1
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June 13, 05

Yes, Kral had a voice "Kral Space" lp is quite nice for the style of song she sings. But "Where Is Love" was not the only lp with piano/voice only! Carmen MacRae recorded in the same format in the mid 1970s. Live at the "Dug" in Japan.Ms. MacRae accompanies herself on piano. Whatever happened to Choice records?

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