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..."it was sinking in that it's not your voice, not whether you have an operatic voice or not but what you do with it that counts. If you want to sing, you should sing.”
- Diana Krall
“But Krall's new album, Live in Paris (Verve), raises a few intriguing doubts about,
her previous albums. Released almost as an afterthought to a DVD/video concert performance, it displays a Krall who was only rarely present in her previous two studio albums, When I Look in Your Eyes and The Look of Love.
Those CDs certainly represent jazz singing at an extremely high level, but their elaborate production and multicolored layers of sound allowed very little room for the spontaneous, brilliantly off-the-cuff vocalizing and solid piano work that make Live in Paris such a remarkable release.”
- Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times
When Diana Krall was first appearing on the Jazz scene, she was hammered by the Jazz press and Jazz fans alike.
I could never understand it.
Those who complained about her complained about everything - her voice, her choice of tunes, her style - it just went on and on. Mostly, it was the comparisons: she wasn’t Ella, or Billie, or “Sassy” Sarah Vaughan. She was a pretender; someone not worthy to uphold the Jazz vocal tradition. And the final insult - she was not a “Jazz singer” - whatever the heck that is.
I dig Diana Krall. Her breathy, husky and deep voice is instantly recognizable. Her choice of tunes is delectable, her renditions of them are full of personality and charm and when called upon to do so, she swings her backside off. As Don Heckman, Jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times asserts: “Krall's vocal style has always been idiosyncratic, more comparable to what instrumentalists do with their horns.”
Her choice of running mates is excellent with a primary quartet in recent years that is made up of Anthony Wilson on guitar, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums. Not bad company, eh? [Her earlier trio was a Nat-King-Cole-Trio-model and featured Russell Malone on guitar and Christian McBride.] Other Jazz musicians that she has recorded with are trumpeter Terell Stafford,tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, harmonica player and guitarist Toots Thielemans, vibraphonist Larry Bunker, guitarist Russell Malone, bassists Christian McBride, Ben Wolfe and Ray Brown, and drummers Lewis Nash and Joe Farnsworth.
Diana’s list of admirers includes Alan Broadbent, Johnny Mandel and Claus Ogerman, all of whom have arranged and conducted large orchestras for her. On the subject of the latter, she has appeared in concert with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and also issued a “live concert CD” with this marvelous big band, as well as, a recording of of Christmas songs.
And speaking of “live concerts,” the recording she made of her November, 2001 performance in Paris is one for the ages and I urge you to view the DVD to see and hear the full range of Diana’s mastery as an entertainer, both as a vocalist and as a pianist.
Her piano playing reflects the influence of Jimmy Rowles, her primary instructor, and I also hear other influences in it ranging from Nat “King” Cole to Ahmad Jamal.
In addition to Don Heckman’s, I found that I was in good company regarding my favorable opinions about Diana Krall when I recently uncovered two essays that also applaude her work: one by Jazz author and critic Alyn Shipton which is reproduced below, and another by the eminent Jazz author and essayist, Gene Lees, which I will put up on the site in a subsequent posting.
As far as I’m concerned, Diana Krall is one of the best talents on the current Jazz scene and deserves to be recognized as such without qualification.
The following piece appeared in the January issue of the British publication Jazzwise. It is reprinted by permission.
When I Look in Your Eyes
- by Alyn Shipton
“You get the impression after talking to her for a while that it's a relief for Diana Krall to focus on her musical career From what she says, plenty of interviews here and in the U.S. have concentrated on her appearance, and in particular her clothes -— the diaphanous off-the-shoulder dresses from her last Love Scenes [Verve IMPD 233] album — in other words, on her image as a blonde bimbo who can sing and play piano.
Her "take me seriously as a musician" attitude fits with the fact that in jazz company, she has always seemed able to slough off her cleverly contrived image and communicate directly to knowledgeable and enthusiastic audiences with all the immediacy, swing, and instrumental talent that marked her out as exceptional for her mentors Ray Brown and Jimmy Rowles. I've heard her in a club setting, like Ronnie Scott's or the Iridium, and she inhabits this milieu naturally and without affectation, something she does even more effectively in front of a festival crowd, like the broadcast sets from Wigan I introduced recently on Radio 3's Jazz Notes, which drew some of the most plentiful and appreciative listeners' letters of the last twelve months.
And yet, the packaging of Diana Krall moves on inexorably, and in company with some new and dramatic pictures that have her in formal black against French windows, a grand piano and tasteful oil paintings, or coyly informal in a casual dress and open-toed sandals, her new album When I Look in Your Eyes [Verve IMPD 304] makes a firm bid for what they call M.O.R. - - the "middle of the road" audience. As well as more cuts by her trio (occasionally augmented to a quartet with either Jeff Hamilton or Lewis Nash on drums), roughly half the disc backs her vocals and small group with a studio orchestra arranged and directed by Johnny Mandel.
Johnny Mandel's no slouch when it comes to providing an orchestral platform for a singer, and his work for Frank Sinatra (such as Ring a Ding Dingl) put him in the very highest echelon of arrangers. However, the Johnny Mandel of today is not so much the man who played brass in the Boyd Raebum and Jimmy Dorsey bands, or arranged for Basie and Artie Shaw. Rather, he's the Grammy-winning composer of The Shadow of Your Smile from The Sandpiper, and a man who's respected the world over for giving the full orchestral treatment to a ballad. Even so, "while jazz fans abhor the string section," wrote Gene Lees recently, "musicians know there is no more subtle and transparent texture against which to set a solo, whether vocal or instrumental." And what Mandel has done is to give Diana Krall an orchestral palette as subtle and transparent in texture as the garments she wears in her soft-focus fashion photos. But is this the right direction for her? And is the pursuit of the crossover hit marginalizing a genuinely attractive jazz talent to its long-term detriment?
You can tell a little of how a musician's career is going from the kind of guest appearances they choose to make, and while the jazz community will have warmed to her recent duo with Fred Hirsch on his latest album to raise money for AIDS charities, her appearance as the singer of Why Should I Care over the closing credits of the Clint Eastwood film True Crime is a more significant clue, and her walk-on parts on albums by the Chieftains and Rosemary Clooney are others. This is not just a jazz singer and pianist, but someone who appears to want to be thought of as a star.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this stage in Diana Krall's career— now the focus is shifting to her as a singer with an orchestra, rather than as a small-group pianist who sings — is that when she first decided to be a musician she had no thoughts about being a vocalist, and concentrated on piano. This goes back to schooldays when she failed to pass the audition for her local youth choir: "I auditioned for a soprano," she says, "and the choir director, who was a very good and well-meaning man, was trying to push my range. I was straining to make these high notes, and getting so stressed that it was really quite an achievement even to audition for the youth choir.
"I didn't pass, and it just devastated me. Nowadays I wish I'd had the confidence to ask to be put in the back with the boys, where I could flirt to my heart's desire and sing tenor. I also think now that it's important not to stereotype yourself as a soprano because you're a woman, but back then I really did develop a complex because I thought I couldn't sing high enough. As time's gone on, my voice is getting lower, but to be honest I didn't really feel comfortable singing until I did the album All for You [Verve IMPD 182], which was only three years ago."
Pushed further, she says that developing her voice is a constant process, that she wasn't finally happy until Love Scenes was in the can, but that now "I know what I can do, and I know what I'm shooting for artistically"
Her confidence as a singer began to gain ground for the first time when she left the Vancouver Island area of her native Canada, and became a student at Boston's Berklee College of Music. "My teacher there, Ray Santisi, encouraged me to sing. At first, I'd been the pianist in a vocal jazz ensemble, getting quite frustrated because several of the singers didn't play piano, or didn't know the keys, so I ended up singing in the group as well, but never really in public."
Everything changed when she moved to Los Angeles to study with Jimmy Rowles. There, she says, "it was sinking in that it's not your voice, not whether you have an operatic voice or not but what you do with it that counts. If you want to sing, you should sing. I was still pretty much a kid when I went to study with him, and I'd spend every day at his house and I'm still coming to grips with things he taught me. The beauty of the music for a start. Jimmy Rowles was not flashy, but he was incredibly complex harmonically in his knowledge, which extended from music m general to Debussy and Ravel in particular The way he played and sang was very, very subtle, and the beauty of the music came through in the way he played and sang songs like Poor Butterfly, Nature Boy, or How Deep Is the Ocean. Those things sunk in while I was there, but I'm still processing that, and coming to terms with his whole artistry. But the other thing he taught me was not to take myself too seriously, even though I took the music itself very seriously."
Perhaps it's the very power and depth of Jimmy Rowles as an influence that's made Diana Krall look over her shoulder into the musical past for inspiration, rather than the present. She's a dramatic contrast, for instance, to her one-time school classmate, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, who's followed a very similar route from the same high school band to today's New York scene. But whereas Ingrid works on her own compositions, and plays with cutting-edge colleagues like Dwayne Burno and Bill Stewart, as well as having a musical agenda that's to do with advancing the cause of female instrumentalists in jazz, Diana still plays standards, and mimics the instrumentation and genre of Nat King Cole's trio.
She goes quickly on to the defensive when I challenge her on this: "I am a storyteller, and I play the piano, which is the most challenging thing for me at the moment, and always has been. Singing's a challenge too. But as far as compositions go, I feel like I'm studying my Shakespeare, and I'm not ready to write and direct my own play yet. I'm studying songs from Jerome Kern to Joni Mitchell, and there's a lot of music there — it's not an excuse, but I'm not ready to write. And I'm fulfilled by performing standards — I don't see too many people singing songs any more."
So, when the call came from Johnny Mandel, he caught her at something of an artistic crossroads. "I wanted to do more with my trio, and I hadn't really thought about making an album with strings. I wasn't really comfortable with a complete switchover. So, to me, this is the best of both worlds: the Diana Krall Trio with Johnny Mandel orchestrating some of the tunes."
Mandel has brought his usual artistry and subtlety to the charts, and his ravishing scoring complete with bass clarinet and flute at the start of When I Look in Your Eyes is both a perfect starting point for Diana's regular guitarist Russell Malone, and for her own narrative skill with the lyrics: "The story's all right, you just have to sing it. But like reading a poem to someone you have to get inside it so that people believe you."
For me, the problem with this is that the songs Diana gets inside best are the quirky, funny, occasionally double-entendre pieces she does as light and frothy parts of her trio sets. Dave Frishberg's Peel Me a Grape, from the Love Scenes album, is typical, or Popsicle Toes from the new album with its risque story line: "You load your Pentax when I'm in the nude . . . I'd like to feel your warm Brazil and touch your Panama." On these, she sings and plays her best, hemmed in neither by the arrangement or any instrumental constraints. On the uptempo jazz numbers with the trio it's the same story, her artful rephrasing of the vocal on Devil May Care is mirrored by the off-center accents of her piano solo, as well as by the intuitively placed stabbing guitar chords from Malone.
But just because these are the songs that Diana makes uniquely her own doesn't mean that they're automatically the most popular. Her straight-ahead ballads were the favorites of those who wrote in after her recent Jazz Notes broadcasts, and she's put in a perfect trio miniature of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love on the new album. Surrounding it, though, are the Mandel pieces. I find it hard to get worked up about them, in the same way I find the Mona Lisa end of Nat Cole's repertoire less compelling than his quicksilver jam-session piano or his jaunty jazz vocals with the trio. There's one moment on her new album when Diana's quartet is sailing happily along during Let's Fall in Love when they unexpectedly get snagged on the underwater trawl nets of the string section. What's more, the sultry rendition of I've Got You Under My Skin sounds more like a parody of a torch singer than the real thing. So there's an unexpected touch of irony in her comment that "there's no question that the strings shine a new light on some of these tunes. I usually have a clear idea of what I want to do, but collaborating with other artists is always a great learning experience. We worked really hard on making sure all the parts fit together correctly. Really, it's a jazz group improvising as usual — the strings are just another instrument."
Maybe, but to me they don't really seem to have made a genuine connection. There's Diana's group improvising as usual, and then there's the orchestra.
In terms of popular success, I'm sure I'm barking up the wrong tree. When I Look in Your Eyes has all the hallmarks of an immensely popular album that will be gracing elevators and restaurant sound systems for years to come. I just think it's a shame that the edge and originality of Diana Krall's talent for singing and playing frothy songs in a swinging small group is being pushed aside by a piece of image-making far more threatening than the clothes she wears or the way she's photographed.”
- Alyn Shipton