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Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: The first exposure I had to your playing was her album, Irene Kral Live (Just Jazz, 2000, recorded 1977). I was really impressed by your comping for her, which supported her singing more than most pianists would. That stayed with me for years. Then a few months ago, I was poking around the web, and found out that in the intervening time, you became famous, one of the top pianists around! But your playing on that album really stuck with me for years.

AB: To your point about me being famous, "famous jazz musician" is an oxymoron, really. Just ask anybody on the street what they think of Oscar Peterson and I guarantee you'll get puzzled looks. And I'm not even close to his or Herbie Hancock's league. Some musicians know of me and my work, that is all. But Irene was a special talent and we hit it off right away. Our first LP is a bit of an underground collector's item and I'm very proud of that recording, Where Is Love (Choice, 1975). Even though my technique was wanting, my musicianship is evident. Irene was the sister of Roy Kral of "Jackie and Roy" fame. I would celebrate the holidays with her and her family and that gave me a sense of home. I remember the day she died. [Irene Kral died in 1978 at age 46 after a prolonged struggle with breast cancer. -Eds.] Roy and Dennis (her boyfriend at the time) called me to say they wanted a little break from sitting with her at the hospital and could I come over for a little while. So I was sitting there alone with her. She was in a coma at this time. The room she was in faced out into the visitor's area where there were a couple of TVs going. It was a football game. So I'm quietly sitting there, and there's a roar of the crowd as somebody must have made a touchdown. And I'll never forget: Irene started getting up, rising out of her sleep state and wanting to acknowledge the applause! I tried to keep her from getting out of bed when, luckily, Roy and Dennis showed up to take over. That's my last memory of her.

I also worked back then with Sue Raney and did a little work with Carmen McRae, which was a real education. I was honored that Carmen compared me to her favorite accompanist, Jimmy Rowles. Later, in the 1990's, I worked with Natalie Cole. The story behind that is that she was in the process of doing the album Unforgettable (Elektra, 1991), and she was dissatisfied with the pianist who did the takes on "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "Route 66." I was playing in Donte's at the time, and Natalie Cole came in with Andre Fischer, Clare Fischer's adopted son. I of course knew of Natalie's father, Nat "King" Cole, but I never heard of Natalie. After the set, they called me over to their table, and she invited me to come to the studio the next day and do some takes on the album. All I knew was how great her father, Nat, was as a pianist as well as a singer. I always felt he was the reason jazz pianists learned how to sing on the piano. He influenced Bud Powell that way to the point where, if you watch a video of Bud playing, he even sits at the piano like Nat. So when Natalie heard me, she liked it, and I was pianist on some of the tracks on the album.

That worked out well, and after that, I started touring with them. While doing that stint as pianist, I studied all the scores the band had of Johnny Mandel, Marty Paich, and Michel Legrand. And I also over the years had collected many classical music scores to study their orchestrations, but never could figure out how to apply that knowledge to a standard song. So now I could see how Johnny Mandel scored "Smile" and how Michel Legrand orchestrated for strings. I took all the scores on the bus with me, and while I was touring with Natalie, it became a nightly discovery of how to orchestrate for a studio orchestra.

Then Natalie told me she was going to do a second album, and she casually asked me on the bus if I would arrange the tune "Crazy He Calls Me" for her. I of course knew it from Billie Holiday. It turned out really nice, but I still had trouble with the orchestration. But Natalie really liked what I came up with and put it on the album and asked me to do some more, which I did. My arrangement of "When I Fall In Love" won a Grammy award, thanks to her support of me. However, after my work with Natalie, unfortunately for me, the whole scene of using a full orchestra on recordings was declining because record companies were already objecting to the cost of paying for so many musicians. But I did go on tour with Natalie, and that was also my first time in Europe.

Charlie Haden Quartet West

AB: Soon after that tour, I got a call that totally surprised me. A guy called and said, "Hey man, I heard your music on the radio. I came home, and I called the station to ask who it was. It sounded beautiful, man. I just moved to L.A. and I'm trying to form a group here. I'm gonna call the group "Quartet West." It was Charlie Haden! I freaked out. He asked me if I knew the saxophonist Ernie Watts. I said, "Ernie and I went to school together at Berklee." And Haden had his old friend, Larance Marable, playing drums. And that's how the next phase of my life, with Charlie Haden's Quartet West, began. It was pure serendipity, which has happened repeatedly to me. Things just happen, and I go with them. We started touring together, and I was also working on a new recording he was making at the time.

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