There is no glory in professing an admiration for Diana Krall. As the easy-listening goddess of our age, she’s an easy mark for derision, on principal or technical grounds. Connoisseurs of jazz singing tend to carp on her breathy delivery, a kind of high-lyric susurration. Others chafe at the sheer palatability of her music: she’s as cool as Starbucks (which may be responsible for a triple-grande portion of her sales).
But last night I caught the first of Diana Krall’s two sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall, and I’m here to tell you it was great. Not in an overwhelming way -- that’s not how she rolls -- but in a deeply satisfying way, which just might be a harder thing to accomplish. The evening illuminated a few reasons why Ms. Krall deserves a second look from her doubters, and at least grudging respect.
This was one of the few stops on the Diana Krall Summer Tour to include an orchestra, which ensured that the set list would draw deeply from Quiet Nights, her glossy new bossa nova album, and The Look of Love, a related chamber-pop entry from 2001. Both albums feature orchestration by Claus Ogerman, a former collaborator of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Both lean unabashedly toward lushness and languor.
So if I didn’t know Krall better, I might have been surprised at how much small-group swinging went down. Her curtain raiser was a Peggy Lee tune, “I Love Being Here with You,” set at a finger-snapping tempo. And it mainly served as a delivery system for solos by guitarist Anthony Wilson, and then Krall herself, whose style at the piano owes a great deal to Oscar Peterson. (At song’s end, she barked a playful syncopation: “Ray Brown, Ray Brown.”) Here’s a similar performance of the tune, from her Live in Paris DVD:
I’ve seen Krall in concert half a dozen times, and each time I’m reminded of her jazz aspirations, and her fondness for anything touched by the hand of Norman Granz. She isn’t at all a bad piano player, in a retrograde fashion, and she appreciates variety: it wasn’t just strategic thinking that had her mixing ballads and bossas with uptempo fare. True, she lacks the expressive instrument of a Cassandra Wilson or a Dianne Reeves, but she has an extremely savvy way with phrasing, at almost any tempo. Her Nat King Cole affinities come alive at a medium-up stroll; on a ballad like “Love Letters,” she can evoke the soft-drawling candor of her former Verve labelmate Shirley Horn.
Of course Krall has a bigger audience than Horn ever did, which bespeaks an injustice I imagine the singer herself would decry. She still comes across as a distant sort of star, though her frost has melted a bit in recent years. Judging by her banter at Carnegie, this might have something to do with motherhood. It almost certainly has something to do with Elvis Costello, to whom she was introduced by bassist Charlie Haden. (Krall has stopped singing the handful of tunes she wrote with Costello, probably as a concession to her constituency, which never warmed to them. Most critics were even less kind.)
As for the orchestra, conducted by Alan Broadbent, it mainly kept up a handsome and unobtrusive shimmer. But I was completely drawn in by Jobim’s “Corcovado,” the title track of Krall’s new album, in its English-lyric iteration. Listen here to the studio version. (You may choose to ignore the video, which illustrates Krall’s grim discomfort when she’s pulled away from a piano.)
I love the creeping dissonance in the strings, particularly after this passage: “I who was lost and lonely / Believing life was only / A bitter tragic joke.” In one sense it recalls Ogerman’s previous arrangement of the song for a tremulous Frank (ahem, Francis Albert) Sinatra. But in another sense the existential darkness of the lyrics has been amplified, and it’s a perfect fit for Krall, whose chilly composure always struck me as a symptom of insecurity. Lost and lonely? She’s been there.
The strings are conspicuously absent from this Late Show clip, but I appreciate the burnished restraint of the performance. And check Letterman’s acknowledgment of Wilson, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff Hamilton. (“And what about that guy?”)
Postcript: Eagle Rock has posted YouTube clips from Live
in Rio, a DVD tied to the new album. (At
Carnegie she played “Walk On By” and “Exactly Like You,” but not the others.)
Also, I had the great pleasure of meeting the perceptive and astoundingly
prolific Stephen Holden, whose NYT review
should be forthcoming. is here.