J&R224

THE ELECTRIC sound of ‘70s jazz excited a young audience raised on rock, but it chilled the blood of many older players, who heard, amid the blaring dissonance, a death knell for their own careers. No one loathed fusion more than bassist Howard Rumsey, a pivotal figure in the golden era of ‘50s West Coast jazz. Rumsey had worked in Stan Kenton’s first orchestra, but he was better known as an impresario than a musician. Starting in 1949 he commandeered the Lighthouse All-Stars, a rotating company of hot-shot players. They jammed together every Sunday at the Lighthouse, a rustic club right on the sand in Hermosa Beach.

The Lighthouse’s glory days were long over by 1971, when Rumsey left to open a new room. He found a dream location: 100 Fisherman’s Wharf, on a pier in nearby Redondo Beach. For the next fourteen years, Concerts by the Sea was a haven for the straight-ahead jazz he loved. Outside the club, waves crashed and salty breezes blew; inside, patrons sipped Piña Coladas and watched time-honored greats – Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Byrd, the Basie and Kenton orchestras – performing at their most relaxed. The club was California-spacious, seating up to two hundred comfortably.

In September 1976, Rumsey welcomed Jackie Cain and her husband Roy Kral, a vocal duo whose impeccably polished, bop-inflected duets of songs from Broadway, cabaret, and modern jazz had made them a connoisseur’s delight since 1948. Arranger Roy, who played piano, spiced up every song with hip substitute chords and rhythmic twists; the end result was as pretty as it was sophisticated.

By the time he died in 2002, the couple had made about forty albums. This one deserves a high place among them. Its never-before-issued live tracks are culled from the same shows that yielded an obscure LP,
Concerts by the Sea. But Echoes outshines its predecessor thanks to a superior mastering job by the original engineer, Rod Nicas. It’s easy to hear why film critic Leonard Maltin, a fan of theirs, wrote in Down Beat of getting “so caught up in that alluring sound” that it virtually swept him away. Jackie’s “exquisitely pure, crystal-like” tone was “a joy to hear,” he added.

The couple sang mostly in unison, an octave apart but in the same range; their blend had a shimmer that Roy liked to call “sympathetic vibrations.” Jackie’s blonde bangs and sunny look recalled a fellow pop beauty, Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary; but nobody on the charts sang more skillfully than Jackie Cain. Her butterscotch alto could nail the toughest intervals; her ballad singing was respected by Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn. Roy sat at the piano looking debonair and playing with a manly percussiveness. Rex Reed, their greatest cheerleader, showered them with published valentines; even people who had never heard of them knew their voices from a series of perky commercial jingles, including “Feelin’ groovy, just had my Cheerios!”

Their lives changed forever in 1973, when the older of their two daughters, Niki, died at 21 in a car crash. They were far from recovered in 1976, when they embarked on the small California tour that took them to Concerts by the Sea. But after years of working in noisy Vegas lounges, they knew how to keep smiling.

And onstage, at least, all was under control. Tough guy Roy based his music on discipline; he could spend weeks on one arrangement. While rehearsing, says Jackie, they would “sometimes get in big arguments. Roy was always in favor of the music being in order, and I was always interested in the phrasing of the lyric.” In the end they reached a happy balance. Their most requested song, Rodgers and Hart’s
Mountain Greenery, sounded as joyously carefree as it was supposed to, even as the two singers hopped through a minefield of flatted fifths and blue notes. Marital strife was depicted as a lark; The Runaround found them leaping into bulletfire vocal gymnastics, then gliding into the invariable happy landing.

Accessible as their music sounded, they still sang for the cognoscenti. Their “slickly swinging vocalizing,” as
Down Beat’s John Tynan had called it, made part of the jazz world dismiss them as a jazzy cabaret act – “superficial and too contrived,” as one critic wrote. They had recorded for admiring producers at most of the major labels but never had a hit; now they lacked a contract, and nearly all their albums were out of print. Bookings, admitted Jackie, were sporadic. But by the mid-‘70s, she says, “we were working more, and we wanted to work more, to come away from the sadness we’d been through.”

She remembers Concerts by the Sea as a bright spot on their agenda: “a really great club” owned by “a very warm and friendly guy.” They brought along three fine musicians from San Francisco: John Mosher, Red Norvo’s former bassist; drummer Gary Nash; and a young vibraphonist, Brian Atkinson, who gave their sound an added glow.

Local jazz luminaries dropped by, including Julie London, her husband Bobby Troup, and songwriter Tommy Wolf, whose “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was immortalized in 1955 by Jackie. Also present were saxophonist Pat Britt and his pal Dennis Smith, a jazz DJ and the boyfriend of Roy’s sister, singer Irene Kral. Britt and Smith were producing live recordings on a small homegrown label, Studio 7. Midway through Jackie and Roy’s engagement, Rod Nicas was called to come in and record.

He captured their fearlessly esoteric repertoire. An obscure composer from Seattle, Robert L. Ragan, had written
I Wonder What’s the Matter with Me, a highlight of their 1966 Verve album, Lovesick. They race through it with the coordination of master jugglers. Dave Frishberg’s comment on modern-day soullessness, Wheelers and Dealers, was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: “One who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” That song impressed their longtime friend and fan, composer Alec Wilder, a self-anointed arbiter of all that was worthy and unworthy in popular music. Wilder could write tuneful songs like Walk Pretty (with words by Fran Landesman), and others that were as hard to navigate as a dark maze. One of the latter, Echoes of My Life, features an equally oblique lyric by his close friend Rogers Brackett. Jackie sings it with her usual clarity.

Mildred Bailey had recorded a lovely early effort of Wilder’s,
It’s So Peaceful in the Country, about a big-town sophisticate’s yearning for pastoral bliss. Roy was justly proud of his arrangement. The first chorus sounds as tranquil as a sunrise; then the song breaks into a sparkling vibes solo before ending in a lazy, stretched-out-under-the-stars feeling.

A moody wordless chorus opens
Corcovado, a samba by a composer the Krals had met in the ‘60s, Antônio Carlos Jobim. In his 1963 classic, Samba do Avião (Song of the Jet), Jobim detailed his joy as he flew home from New York and into his beloved Rio. The Runaround was written for the Krals that same year by Andre Previn and his then wife, lyricist-poet Dory Langdon, whose songs were the theme of Jackie and Roy’s Columbia album Like Sing.

At Concerts by the Sea, Jackie & Roy broke in some of the songs that would later form their tribute to the films of Humphrey Bogart. From
To Have and Have Not comes Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s philosophical take on romance, How Little We Know. Mercer, recalls Jackie, used to sit in his cups at various L.A. clubs and listen to her and Roy for hours. The Fat Man was written for the Bogart project by Roy and Fran Landesman, a Beat-era Dorothy Parker who went on to write hundreds of lyrics and many books of poems.

The Krals’ shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s acknowledged, with some reluctance, the pop-rock sounds of the day. Billy Joel’s
New York State of Mind would become a standard even though it was an album track (from Turnstiles), not a chart hit. “We heard it and said, it’s kind of good for a contemporary song,” says Jackie. Roy transformed it from R&B into lightly swinging jazz, with a unison scat chorus. Jackie solos teasingly on Sweet Surrender, a #15 hit for Bread in 1972. She and Roy even made a nod to fusion in their 1973 album for CTI, A Wilder Alias. Here they perform an acoustic version of Roy’s all-scat original, The Way We Are.

Perhaps this CD’s biggest find is a ballad available only here,
Winter Comes. The music is by Harvie Swartz, the Krals’ former bassist. “It was in a strange time figure that made it sort of catchy and interesting to us,” says Jackie. She wrote the moving lyric, whose theme of bravely soldiering on reflected her recent life: “Live for today, that’s what I say … The road to understanding comes into view/But laughs are all too few.”

Concerts by the Sea thrived until a greedy landlord hit Rumsey with a crippling rent hike. For a while he was forced to book commercial acts he hated, including Kenny G, but in 1985 he closed up shop and retired. Jackie and Roy, though, kept performing almost until Roy’s death. This CD holds great sentimental meaning for Jackie – as it will for anyone whose lives their music has touched.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006

[James Gavin, the author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is now writing a biography of Lena Horne for Simon & Schuster.]