By JUAN RODRIGUEZ, Freelance June 18, 2011
Diana Krall has played at the Montreal International Jazz Festival before, but this year she performs three shows solo - just her at the piano.
Photograph by: JOHN MAHONEY GAZETTE FILE, Freelance
First, there are the numbers: Diana Krall has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide, including 6 million in the U.S., more albums than any other jazz singer of the 1990s and 2000s. She's the only singer to debut eight albums atop the jazz charts. Thus far, she has won three Grammy Awards and eight Junos, scoring nine gold, three platinum, and seven multiplatinum albums.
Then, there are the tie-ins and associations: The ads for Lexus luxury autos, for Rolex watches, the countless magazine covers. In 2008, Nanaimo Harbourfront Plaza was renamed Diana Krall Plaza. Barbra Streisand asked her to produce her last album, in 2009. Clint Eastwood, a fan and friend, featured her music in True Crime. And, of course, there was the marriage to Elvis Costello at Elton John's estate.
Finally, there are Krall's looks: blond, sultry, in classic stylish wardrobe, the little black dress or the strapless gown, "glamorous and amorous," to paraphrase 'S Wonderful, the Gershwin song that opens her best-of album. You'd have to go back to Julie London to find a jazz ballad singer so aggressively marketed as a sex symbol. What's more, her success opened a lucrative market for retro stylists, inspiring a slew of other glamourpusses (like Norah Jones and Jane Monheit) to enter the fray, to various degrees of commercial success.
It's not supposed to be this way for a genuine jazz singer. Besides, how could a whitebread from the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo measure up to the legacies of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, who overcame various forms of racial discrimination? And how could she have the chutzpah of ostensibly imitating, in the form of a tribute album, the acknowledged master of the piano-guitar-bass trio format, Nat King Cole, on her third album, All for You, breaking through to sell 100,000 copies within months? "Has Diana Krall gone pop?" asked a Globe and Mail headline. Ergo, she's not a real jazz singer, right?
Wrong. Welcome to yet another jazz controversy over "purity" and preconceived notions. Jazz is full of critic-generated brouhahas, which have more often than not dragged the music into a ghetto ruled by those "in-theknow."
Diana Krall is a polarizing figure who breaks conventional wisdom on what it means to be a serious jazz artist.
That sentiment was echoed by a self-described "aging jazz singer," who recently blogged: "I almost felt it was time for me to stop singing because I saw so many younger singers with more beauty than talent making an impression. Unfortunately, it's a fact of life that some people (many of them men) will buy albums because they can imagine a beauty . singing to them. I'll never forget the spectacle of a friend's husband (who never much cared for vocalists) going gaga over a video of Diana Krall and playing it over and over again. It was pretty obvious that Krall's music was secondary."
Krall was criticized by Gary Giddens, the Village Voice's arbiter of jazz taste, for wrapping The Look of Love album in the airy satinpillow-plush arrangements of Claus Ogerman, whose trademark lushness - which comes perilously close to sounding like Muzak - has graced albums by no less an artist than Antonio Carlos Jobim. (Then again, jazz critics have always had a thing against Ogerman, whom Giddens characterized as a "menace." I happen to love Ogerman's sound.)
A measure of how Diana Krall takes chances and rises to the occasion will be her three-night solo stand - just her at the piano - at Théâtre Maisonneuve, June 26 to 28. It's one thing to do this in a club (although a bassist is usually needed to maintain a rhythmic pulse), it's another thing entirely to create an intimate club-like atmosphere in a large hall.
Though she has played the Montreal jazz fest on numerous occasions - debuting in 1995 in her Nat King Cole tribute trio, a year later at the Spectrum for her first filmed concert, in 1999 with 30 musicians, in 2004 at the Bell Centre celebrating the festival's 25th anniversary - she has not done a solo engagement at the fest. Festival artistic director André Ménard came up with the idea for her: three nights that should give her the opportunity to make changes in repertoire and different approaches to the moment. A mini-musical laboratory in velvet.
In his intensely discriminating Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, Will Friedwald reiterates the three reactions to the huge success of Diana Krall over the last two decades:
"First, that she's really great, and deserves all the attention and acclaim that she's received. (This is not exactly my opinion, but I do have to respect the taste of some of those who have expressed it, such as Johnny Mandel and Tony Bennett.) Second, that she's a total sham in a little black dress and high heels, foisted on the public by astute promoters, largely by virtue of her supermodel appearance. (This opinion is inevitably put forward by other, less successful would-be singers, whose mouths are so filled with sour grapes that they can hardly sing themselves.) Third, that she's somewhere between the two poles - that she is, if not the greatest thing since sliced bread, certainly one of the more wonderful (and, correspondingly, more popular) performers of jazz and standards currently active, that she not only has a lot of talent but works hard and is constantly improving her craft, and further, that her success bodes well for the future of this music. Speaking personally, I started with the second opinion, have been very comfortable with the third for a few years now, and am starting to veer toward the first."
Krall herself shrugs off the criticism, noting that when she was a teenager she adorned her bedroom wall with posters of Charlie Parker and Peter Frampton: "But for you jazz police out there, don't worry - I arranged them so they couldn't see each other."
Such objections to the so-called corrupting influence of commerce (ugh) were not raised in the decade or so - the big-band era of the 1930s and '40s - when jazz really was America's popular music. What the naysayers conveniently forget is that Ella, Sarah and Dinah all had big pop hits, and they all dressed glamorously. They all appeared on television regularly.
What's forgotten is that Krall started out as a pianist who had to be talked into singing by Jimmy Rowles, who for years was Fitzgerald's accompanist. She describes the piano as a guide to her vocals, a bold complement to a limited contralto.
She imbues the songs with subtle (yet adventurous) nuance - really, in the jazz tradition - rather than overt "trademark" mannerisms, the death trap for so many female singers these days. She makes no attempt to "sound black" by adopting blues or gospel tinges.
She compensates with canny use of space and silences, restraint, breezy warmth, and a devotion to follow the groove - even when that groove proceeds at a snail's pace. Like Nat Cole, her piano and voice are in total sync.
While sales figures prove her popularity, getting respect from the jazz police is another matter. Of course, she cares about respect from people she looks up to but, in another sense, coming from polemicists with axes to grind, she could care less.
Born on Nov. 16, 1964, in Nanaimo, B.C., she was raised by musical parents; her mother sang in the community choir, her father played stride piano and was an avid collector of sheet music and old 78 rpms, and turned her on to Fats Waller.
Her other heroes included Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines, all of whom influenced her innate ability to establish rhythm (albeit her inimitable languorous rhythm). Her preferred format - piano, guitar, bass - comes straight from Cole's famous trio of the '40s.
(While most people remember Cole for his velvet voice, he was a groundbreaking, absolutely fearless and swinging pianist who conjoined the worlds of swing and bop.)
She was discovered by Nanaimo School District music teacher Bryan Stovell, who developed in her a work ethic that amazes to this day. Two other Nanaimo natives, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and her younger sister, Christine (saxophone, composer), looked up to her hard-won progress and were inspired to follow her dogged path - to great success, too.
Krall started gigging professionally at age 15, and won a Vancouver Jazz Festival scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she met drummer Jeff Hamilton and bassist-orchestrator John Clayton, who suggested she move to Los Angeles and with whom she recorded her debut album, Stepping Out, for Montreal's Justin Time label. She stayed in L.A. for three years, parlaying a Canada Council grant to study in Los Angeles with Jimmy Rowles. She also met up with the bass pioneer Ray Brown, who became another mentor.
She was already 26 before she started singing professionally. "I didn't have the confidence," she once said. "Too much listening to Sarah Vaughan, I guess."
In 2000, she opened a tour with Tony Bennett, another challenge given the comparison factor with Mr. Ballad himself. "About the only dumb thing that Krall has ever done," Friedwald writes, "is decline Tony Bennett's generous offer to share an album with him, something that no other vocalist had the opportunity to do up to that point."
A forward-thinking musician, she has remained seemingly unaffected by the trappings of stardom - or the glamorous image she insists is her doing and not the work of her "handlers." (Perhaps we should replace the word "glamour" with "impeccable good taste.")
The historian and critic Ted Gioia (author of the newly revised The History of Jazz) chided her recently for crediting two hairdressers, two makeup artists and one wardrobe assistant in the liner notes to 2006's From This Moment On. "Ah, how times have changed . how did Billie Holiday get by with just that gardenia? Where was Ella's entourage? Bessie's beautician? Sarah's stylist?"
Yet Gioia, in an online survey (at jazz.com) of female jazz singers, gives full props to Krall's talent: "A thousand vocalists have ended up on the boulevard of broken dreams by trying to resuscitate 'S Wonderful or Let's Fall in Love. These songs have been so picked over that there is hardly any meat left on their bones. But Krall avoids all the traps here. She doesn't lapse into imitation of her predecessors. She doesn't try to out-scat Ella or hit higher notes than Sarah. She doesn't get cutesy or treat the song with museum-like reverence. Instead she does just what we want her to do - namely, probe the emotional insides of these melodies. She lives the song, and does it with such honesty and immediacy that we forget whether the song was written in 1938 or 1968. It sounds like she composed it on the piano this afternoon before showing up at the gig."
Krall "makes it seem so simple," Gioia continues. She "has established a distinctive voice of her own. She has already earned her own wing in the pantheon of ballad singers."
Some critics compare her unfavourably to such overtly "creative" and idiosyncratic singers as Cassandra Wilson and Shirley Horn. And yet that is like comparing apples and oranges.
She's coolly emphatic about the philosophy and the lexicon of love. The look of love is no mere glance through her eyes. She's intimate in a conversational way about that ephemeral - indelible, incredible - moonglow atmosphere, instead of bludgeoning you with it. It's as if she's asking "Did you ever feel this way, too?" She's marvellously candid yet open-ended with her audiences. She's the modern-day girl next door.
German critics and historians Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Günther Huesmann, in the seventh edition of The Jazz Book, hail her "slightly understated phrasing full of surprises. Krall succeeded in reinterpreting the tradition of American jazz standards with a deep understanding of the texts and an irresistible articulation. Her style represents a very attractive, unaffected type of singing. Krall has a phenomenal feeling for using her voice to explore the depths of the emotional presence in a song's lyrics. She makes room for all the facets of human feelings and passions, with fragility, a slight coarseness, seductiveness, and little vocal growls, all filtered through her typical coolness."
Berendt and Huesmann maintain that Krall "is perhaps as significant as a pianist as she is as a vocalist. She expands and comments on her singing with a piano style that sparkles with improvisational wit and spontaneous lightness."
"I owe all that to Jimmy Rowles," she said. The piano helps the singing "catch fire."
To critics who say she milks nostalgia for the classic American Songbook, she replied: "The stories of love and romance, loss and loneliness, have always been there and always will be."
Diana Krall performs June 26 to 28 at Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts, as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. All of the shows are sold out.
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