Whoever selected the songs for the soundtrack to Bette Midler’s recent movie, That Old Feeling, clearly has a broad knowledge of classic pop-jazz vocals. The album is an outstanding, if brief, survey of some of the best-sung swing tunes of all time.
There’s Ella Fitzgerald’s exhilarating take on George and Ira Gershwin’s “Your Love Is Here to Stay,” a tune that allows her to show off both her clear tone and her thrilling rhythmic verve. It’s followed by Dinah Washington’s boisterous, unmatchable version of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s brilliant “Call Me Irresponsible,” which leads into an agile, distinctive version of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” by a young Tony Bennett (backed with characteristic punch by the Count Basie Orchestra). Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Nat “King” Cole are all represented at their best, as is the underrated Keely Smith, whose inclusion says volumes about the discerning passion the soundtrack’s coordinators have for this style of music.
The selections aren’t necessarily these artists’ best-known songs, but they’re among their most striking performances. For that reason, the soundtrack serves as a wonderful sampler of up-tempo pop-jazz tunes culled from the classic era of popular songs. The soundtrack fails, however, in its attempt to include a few recent recordings. Apparently, the idea was to come up with songs that would fit in with the older tunes, but the newer inclusions only prove that today’s music industry has an unfathomable knack for propping up lesser talents while worthier vocalists linger in the shadows.
With the exception of a fiery Latin jazz instrumental by Patrick Williams and Tres Amigo, the newer songs suggest that swing singers aren’t what they used to be. While the classic pop offerings by Bette Midler, Lou Rawls, and Diane Reeves have some merit, they simply wilt in comparison to the other songs on the album.
In the end, the album points up a modern-day dilemma: While nostalgic albums by singers like Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Cole, and Harry Connick Jr. call attention to classic American popular songs, these singers simply don’t rate with the performers who originally turned these tunes into well-known favorites. Ronstadt has a strong voice, but she’s too rigid to capture the bounce of swing music. Cole has a nice liquid tone, but she lacks nuance and personality. And Connick! A second-rate pianist transformed into a fourth-rate big-band singer, the young New Orleans resident would have been laughed out of rehearsals during the swing era.
What makes the issue all the more prickly is that outstanding pop-jazz singers do exist todaythey just don’t have the same marketing cachet as celebrities like Ronstandt and Connick. Given the peerless selection of older performances on the That Old Feeling soundtrack, surely the compilers must be aware of active jazz vocalists such as Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, and Cassandra Wilson, all of whom could top any of the modern performers on the collection. Andthe most glaring omissionsurely the compilers must know of young Diana Krall, who, with her mass-market appeal, would seem to be a marketing department’s dream. Until now, though, Krall’s audience has been limited to jazz enthusiasts.
A 31-year-old native of Canada, Krall is a remarkably capable pianist and vocalist who has released two notable albums in America, the latest being 1996’s All for You: A Dedication to the Nat “King” Cole Trio. Critics regularly compare Krall to Horn, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee, and even Ella Fitzerald and Sarah Vaughan. But, as a strikingly pretty blonde, she also gets compared to Sharon Stone and Drew Barrymore; as New York magazine put it, she’s “clearly a genetic-lottery winner.”
The references to Krall’s beauty embarrass herafter all, her ability comes only from dedication to her craft and from countless hours of musical study and on-the-spot experience. After the kind of work she’s donestudying at the Berklee College of Music and with the great Jimmy Rowles in Los Angeles; extended live stints in Toronto, New York, and Bostonshe deserves to be recognized for her skills rather than for her sultry look. But, because of her youth and her attractiveness, Krall has a better chance of gaining pop-star status than any other modern jazz singer.
Adding to Krall’s potential mass appeal is the fact that she isn’t a scat singer, and she doesn’t take off on intricate flights of challenging vocalese. Instead, she’s a lyrical interpreter of exceptional sensitivity; she comes off more like Chet Baker, only her intimate style carries a purer, less craggy tone. Her burnished phrasing comes across as wise, yet packed with emotion.
So it’s a mystery why Krall isn’t better known. Why does a painfully limited singer like Harry Connick Jr. command so much attention, while Krall languishes in relative obscurity? Of the two, it’s Krall who has the genuine potential to create music as meaningful and as popular as that of Cole, Fitzgerald, or Bennett.
Indeed, anyone interested in vocal jazz should make hearing Krall a priority. As a pianist, she swings with an effortless touch and has a slightly offbeat style of her owna combination of Cole, Thelonius Monk, Rowles, George Shearing, and Dave McKenna. As a singer, she has a dusky alto that she wields with a smoldering, wry intelligence: She manages to bring out the drama in her particularly well-picked songs while performing them with a conversational, offhand ease. She has the confident air of a seasoned vet, yet she’s capable of cocky surprises that suggest a youthful vigor bubbling just below the surface.
Tellingly, All for You honors the Nat “King” Cole Trio, meaning that Krall concentrates on Cole’s early career from the 1940s, when he performed with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince (and, later, bassist Johnny Miller). It’s a period when Cole concentrated on lean, tasteful jazz, before he moved to the pop orchestrations of “Mona Lisa” and “Nature Boy.”
Krall includes a few well-known Cole numbers, offering a coy yet smart take on “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” a rollicking version of “Frim Fram Sauce,” and an angular, rhythmic rendition of “Deed I Do.” But the best songs aren’t necessarily Cole’s best-known tunes. For example, “You’re Looking at Me,” performed as a duet with guitarist Russell Malone, is stunningly effective. Krall begins with a wry, almost spoken whisper, recounting how she was once so sure of herself and so sure of her love. But her interpretation becomes truly powerful when she slips into a slightly higher, more musical voice to express the pain she’s trying to hide. It’s a masterful performance.
On “Baby Baby All the Time,” written by Bobby Troup (also responsible for “You’re Looking at Me” and “Route 66”), Krall portrays a cocky woman who pushes away a lover with fiendish ease, only to realize later how much she misses being called “baby, baby, all the time.” She gives another fine ballad performance on “You Call It Madness,” in which she tells her ex-lover that she isn’t acting crazy, she’s just acting like she’s in lovea feeling he’s apparently lost. Krall, guitarist Malone, and bassist Paul Keller also spring through a snapping trio vocal workout on “Hit That Jive Jack,” and the singer opens the album with a bracingly nimble take on “Errand Boy,” which she refashions into “I’m an Errand Girl for Rhythm.”
While Hollywood has yet to discover one of the best young jazz interpreters of the ’90s, more than likely it’s only a matter of time. For now, fans of late-night, romantic ballads and small-combo swing who haven’t yet heard Krall’s dazzling performances will want to pick up a copy of All for You as soon as possible. It’s the kind of rare pleasure that makes seeking out uncommon artists worth the search.
Diana Krall and her trio make their Nashville debut April 25 at Caffé Milano.
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.