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Barbara Morrison, a swinging connection to the the late Irene Kral

September 9, 2011 |  5:20 pm

Barbara Morrison
Pianist Junior Mance holds equal esteem for jazz singers Barbara Morrison and the late Irene Kral (1932-78). On the face of it, the coupling is unlikely. As young women, the former emulated Gladys Knight, the latter Carmen McRae. Morrison’s work is rooted in blues and gospel. Kral’s greatest interpretations were slow ballads; she didn’t sing blues. Morrison is an animated performer who engages every person in the room. Kral was remote; she stood still and only addressed audiences to identify the tunes and the musicians.

Read about Barbara Morrison's Los Angeles legacy.

Dig deeper -- the similarities pop up like prairie dogs. They’re Midwesterners: Morrison from Wayne (now called Romulus), Mich., Irene from Cicero, Ill. Their respective arts gained ultimate maturity in Los Angeles. Shared traits also include clear voices and enunciation, and putting the song in the foreground.  Strong entrepreneurial streaks are common: Morrison records and markets her own albums; Kral defied convention in 1972 and recorded herself with only Alan Broadbent’s sublime piano accompaniment.  She doggedly shopped her tape for two years before she found a sympathetic label to release it without alterations.

Morrison and Kral share something else: a relish to swing. With the Junior Mance Trio behind her, Kral’s “Better Than Anything” (1964) was a turntable hit.  Mance’s trio swelled and subsided a waltz vamp that Kral deftly rode to the hippest lyrics of the day: "…Better than Ella Fitzgerald, better than Miles’ latest news.  Better than Bill Evans’ ballads, better than Joe Williams’ blues.  Better than hearing Lady Day or checking in at Monterey.  Better than anything except being in love…"

Where Kral swung subtly, Morrison grabs a song with both hands and shapes it to her will.  Listeners don’t wonder where the beat is and how the groove is administered.  Overt or recessed, Morrison and Kral are sisters in swing who’ve enriched L.A. jazz immeasurably.

A concert on Sunday will benefit Morrison, who recently lost a leg to diabetes. Read the full story.

-- Kirk Silsbee

Top: Barbara Morrison. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times.