I first was introduced to Irene Kral's voice at a friend's house in the mid-1970s. After high school each day, my friend and I used to spend a few hours listening to his father's record collection from the 1950s. Among the many LPs was a copy of Maynard Ferguson's Boy With Lots of Brass (1957). My friend also had quite a stereo system—a Macintosh receiver, a Dual turntable and a pair of chest-high Altec "Voice of the Theatre" speakers. Everything sounded great on there, especially brassy big-band recordings.
The track we loved more than any other was Moonlight in Vermont, featuring Irene Kral on the vocal. According to the album's liner notes, this was Kral's first recording session, and she had aced the song on the first take. My friend and I loved Kral's warm vocal backed by Ferguson's supersonic high notes on the ballad. This version remains for me the definitive Moonlight in Vermont.
A few years later, while running through LPs at Harvard Square's Coop in Cambridge, Mass., I came across an album by Kral accompanied only by pianist Alan Broadbent. The album was Where Is Love? (1974). At first glance, it seemed to be the polar opposite of Boy With Lots of Brass. Here was Kral, the big band singer, with just a piano behind her. Pretty gutsy, I thought. So I bought the LP.
What I found remarkable about this Kral album was how maternal she sounded on her own. There was a hearth-like toastiness about her voice, a simplicity to her phrasing that wasn't too heavy but self-assured and sincere. And her song choices fit her voice perfectly. As for Broadbent, his intensity and wide chord voicings romantically framed Kral's intonation and filled in the spaces gracefully without crowding her.
So when Gentle Rain came out in 1977, also featuring Broadbent, I grabbed it. In the years that followed, I hoped that more Kral-Broadbent collaborations would be issued. This of course, grew increasingly unlikely, since Kral had died in 1978 at age 46 of breast cancer. The scarcity of material only added to the sensitivity and importance of her recordings.
Then a couple of weeks ago, a package arrived from Jazzed Media, a label in Littleton, Colo. Inside was Second Chance, a new CD with Kral's picture on the cover. When I turned it over, there on piano was Alan Broadbent, along with Peter Marshall on bass and Frank Severino on drums. I was stunned. The material was recorded live in 1975 at The Times Restaurant in Studio City, Calif, and the songs were a tasteful mix. Finally, previously unreleased Kral-Broadbent material had surfaced—but how would the CD sound?
When I put on the album I was immediately blown away. Second Chance sounds as though it was recorded last week in a top-notch studio rather than in open space more than 30 years ago. How remarkable. And the material is as tender and touching as the earlier two. Great news for jazz singers looking for examples of vocalists who created intimate moods in clubs. [Pictured: Alan Broadbent]
Much of this album's sterling sound has to do with Rod Nicas, the credited recording and mastering engineer. Nicas, according to Graham Carter of Jazzed Media, was active in the Los Angeles jazz community in the '70s as a recording engineer. He worked for Albert Marx of Discovery Records for several years and was asked by Dennis Smith, Irene's steady at the time, to record her. "Rod had the recording sitting in the bottom of his closet, along with other recordings by Jackie & Roy, which I released a couple of years ago," Carter told me.
Irene was singer-pianist Roy Kral's sister, and he was her early role model. Kral sang with local bands in Chicago and then joined a vocal group in 1954, singing lead and playing the drums. In 1957 Carmen McRae recommended her to Maynard Ferguson, who hired her to record tracks on Boy With Lots of Brass. From there, recordings followed with Herb Pomeroy, Steve Allen, Junior Mance and Shelly Manne. She also turned up on two tracks on Laurindo Almeida's Guitar from Ipanema—Winter Moon and Old Guitaron.
I wish I could single out tracks on Second Chance for praise but I can't. They're all knockouts. You really have to listen to this gem from start to finish, as if experiencing the live set at the club. Included here is The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Second Chance, Misty Roses, Sometime Ago, Star Eyes and Nobody Else But Me. Each of the 14 tracks receives the Kral and Broadbent treatment—introspective depth with enormous charm.
It's so rare today for a jazz album of previously unreleased material to surface bearing important work and remarkable fidelity. If you dig intimacy, Second Chance is a must-own.
JazzWax tracks: Irene Kral: Second Chance (Jazzed Media) is available at iTunes and here. Sample a few tracks to get acquainted with Kral and Broadbent. Both Where is Love? and Gentle Rain are available as well.
JazzWax clip: Here's Irene Kral with Maynard Ferguson's band in 1957 acing Moonlight in Vermont...
Here's Irene Kral in 1974 singing Where Is Love?, the title track of her first album backed only by Alan Broadbent on piano...