Clint Eastwood's Bridges of Madison County is one film that changed my life. Not that I ended up getting a date with Meryl Streep. Nor that I had a Zen awakening to all the bridges that exist in life and love. No, it was the background crooning of two astonishing vocalists whom I, in my regrettable ignorance, had never before heard. When I saw the movie (and listened to its absorbing soundtrack), I glued my eyes to the credits and picked out the names Johnny Hartman and Irene Kral. Since then, my life has become an obsession to find the recordings of these two extraordinary singers who at their best rose far above the crowd of their contemporaries. By now, Hartman's recordings- partly thanks to the movie- are relatively easy to obtain on numerous CD's. With Irene Kral, it is another story. Unfortunately, she was not a prolific recording artist. My life has become one lonely, repetitious series of visits to the jazz section of Tower Records, and with one of every hundred peeks at the "Irene Kral" space (Kral Space is actually the title of one of her albums), I have espied and captured another one of her CD's. At present, I have put my hooks on three: Irene Kral Live ; Gentle Rain ; and now You Are There. All these albums were originally recorded in the 1970's with small groups, or in the case of Gentle Rain, Alan Broadbent's piano accompaniment. This, long after Ms. Kral had done her stints with the best of the big bands- Kenton, Ferguson, etc.- and made that difficult decision to quietly pursue artistic intimacy rather than commercial success.
Johnny Hartman and Irene Kral were both poets of ballads. (Hartman could also swing quite well on up-tempo tunes, while Kral seemed to focus almost entirely on ballads.) Their skill at timing, pitch, and phrase were usually impeccable (Hartman seems to me to have been a bit less consistent than Kral, but that may be because he did diverse recording gigs over several decades.) Their interpretations- their sentiment, their values- were totally pure, such a delicious contrast to the jaded quality of so many of the "greats" whom we all know. They captured the essence of what legendary trombonist J.J. Johnson somewhat mysteriously referred to as "jazz syntax," that special "feel" (with blues somewhere in the background) which makes jazz soulful, meaningful, and creative. As Robert Bly has pointed out, a characteristic of the best modern poets is the way they use vowel sounds. If you listen carefully to Kral's phrasing, you will hear how she emphasizes vowels and gives them her own special speech quality, infusing them with meaning.
You are There was originally recorded in 1977 in record producer Dick Phipps' home music room in Lexington, South Carolina. Kral was somewhere between episodes of breast cancer, which was to take her life at the age of 40 in 1978 (what an incalculable loss!) Her voice, however is strong, and her articulation confident and full of life, with no sign of illness. Her friends, among whom was Carmen McCrae, say that she bore her fate with extraordinary grace. (James Gavin's very helpful liner notes provide useful information about her life and work, as well as a clear appreciation of Kral, the person and the singer.) Each track is excellent: the album is of consistent quality from beginning to end. (The acoustics and recording equipment are quite good, except for a slight "analog" hiss, which is quickly forgotten.) The backup group is the Loonis McGlohon Trio with McGlohon on piano, Terry Lassiter, bass, and Jim Lackey, drums. They are superb accompanists, never intrusive, always to the point. (Ms.Kral's main accompanist at the time was the incomparable Alan Broadbent, but McGlohon, though more restrained in his improvising than Broadbent, provides a perfect frame for Ms. Kral's vocal images.)
Kral always chose her songs carefully. The tunes on this album are tasteful, tender, and interesting. I like her rendition of Mandel's "The Sunshine of Your Smile." "Small Day Tomorrow" seems to reflect Kral's own decision to "follow a different drummer." "A Noel Coward Medley" is a delightful surprise. Kral naturally draws the listener to the uniqueness of both the melody and the words in each song.
If there is a jazz heaven, Ms. Kral's name is surely up there in lights with the great, beautiful, and true jazz artists who will never be known to the marketplace world of the commercial successes. You are There will serve as an excellent introduction to the extraordinary gifts of a singer whose light shone so very brightly for all too short a time.