Worth Waiting For 

Jazz balladeer Diana Krall finally delivers on her Valentine’s Day performance

Jazz balladeer Diana Krall finally delivers on her Valentine’s Day performance

Diana Krall with the Nashville Symphony

Performed June 27 in TPAC’s Jackson Hall

Last Wednesday evening, the Diana Krall concert with the Nashville Symphony, originally scheduled as a Valentine’s Day event, finally happened—and with impressive results. Jackson Hall was almost filled, and with the most diverse house I’ve ever seen there. The audience ranged in age from teens to senior citizens, and mostly consisted of thirtysomethings to fiftysomethings. Dress was correspondingly varied, from coats and ties and elegant long gowns to frayed blue jeans and partly tucked shirttails, from ladies with costly coiffures to potbellied guys with unkempt grizzled ponytails. The room was filled with great expectations.

Krall did not disappoint. This young woman and the other members of her quartet played nonstop for an hour and a quarter, the house hanging on every semi-quaver. About half the time, the four played on their own, with the orchestra’s musicians as listeners; for the remainder, the symphony joined its forces to those of the quartet. With and without the orchestra, the performance was consistently quite fine. In fact, for me, it was a revelation.

Krall’s recordings, if complacently heard, may seem to be merely iterating standards and thus leaning on her jazz forebears. Certainly, she constantly pays homage to those forebears. But her material does more than that. Whether deliberately or not, Krall is executing a rescue operation. Jazz, like classical music, was derailed in the last century by avant-gardists whose experiments led to dissonances that made many listeners take their ears elsewhere. Krall is combating this estrangement—both through what she plays and through how she plays it. She’s reviving and renewing what some have called “classical” jazz—a narrative artform, rooted in the blues, that flowered in the voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and Rosemary Clooney, among others.

Witnessing Krall’s live performance focused my attention in a way that merely hearing her work had not done. No recording suggests the warm and relaxed rapport she established with her audience simply by walking onto the stage. During the evening, she spoke with the house, but always laconically—and always with self-mocking drollery. Even that concise badinage was a functional part of her total performance. She had a similar rapport with her band members as well. The group’s togetherness was razor-keen, and Krall’s performance as singer was always the focal center of everything they did. That in itself is uncommon. Though a fine pianist, Krall is not a pianist who sings; she is a singer who plays piano as a support to what she sings. It’s fitting that her 1996 breakthrough album was dedicated to the music of Nat King Cole, the best precursor I know for what she does.

Her recordings have mostly been in jazz trio or quartet formats, well suited to her subtly nuanced performance style. Her release just out, When I Look Into Your Eyes, also features lush orchestral string arrangements by Johnny Mandel. The axis of her program at TPAC was her intimate musical discourse with bassist Ben Wolfe, drummer Rodney Green, and guitarist Dan Faehnle. Significantly, she and her colleagues are all 30-ish—except Green, who is barely 20.

Also significant was the fact that, when the symphony joined the performance, the orchestra was conducted by Alan Broadbent, who has collaborated as arranger and conductor with a list of artists including Clooney, Natalie Cole, and Mel Tormé. Broadbent has said, “To me, communication is what it’s about—not pyrotechnics.” That phrase characterizes the entire June 27 program.

Focusing so on Krall’s voice is all the more remarkable because the voice in and of itself is not particularly remarkable. It’s a very low contralto, it doesn’t have a wide range (a little more than an octave, like Billie Holiday’s), and it has a smoky, husky, almost raspy timbre. But when Krall uses it, it becomes a uniquely expressive instrument for telling stories about frustration and fulfillment, now sardonic, now tenderly fragile.

Krall herself sees her performances as an homage to her precursors. Her entire program last Wednesday—14 songs, including the encore—consisted of standards trademarked by singers like Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Lee, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole. She did the songs nonstop, moving deftly from one to the next, in a basically fast/slow sequence: an upbeat, witty ballad followed by one or two slower, torchier selections. She opened with “I Love to Be With You” and “Do It Again”; she closed with “Frim Fram Sauce.” Her encore was a torchy, reflective version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Along the way, she included “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “But Not for Me,” “Cry Me a River,” and “Start All Over Again.” Certainly, her charismatic onstage persona is enough in itself to make the crowd lean forward attentively. But what she does both with her voice and at the keyboard is subtle, nuanced, and ingeniously original. With what seems authentic modesty, she honors her forebears by giving them fresh bodies.

Someone has said that the essence of jazz is rhythm. For Krall, that is certainly true. She places speech accents before or after the beat as inventively as Holiday or Fitzgerald did, always respecting the intonations of natural English speech. And at the keyboard too, whether alone or in communication with her bandmates, she reconfigures melodic and harmonic rhythms in ways Mozart would admire. Neither she nor her virtuoso co-workers are gratuitously flamboyant: Everything supports or clarifies the story being sung. Krall sounds like a melding of Bill Evans and John Lewis (who did not sing), metabolizing the geniuses of Fitzgerald and Lee. This quartet did not need the symphony to weave their spell. It’s very likely they would have filled the house on their own. That, indeed, is the main reason they were invited in. But the songs with orchestra, especially the torchier ones, were richer and more expressive than they could have been without. The charts featured mostly strings, but brasses and winds and percussion all had their moments too. And Broadbent corroborated his own remark about communication in directing his players: His symphonic instrument and Krall’s quartet executed precisely persuasive forms. Krall herself spoke to the audience about how moved she was by the orchestral sounds she was sharing. She could have been uttering a commonplace courtesy, but my ears told me that what she said was the unvarnished truth. This orchestra deserves to fill houses on its own.

Maybe because of Krall and her cohorts, some people who did not know that before now do. But it is clear that authentically gratifying jazz is robustly and subtly alive in at least four musicians under 40. Some of us waited from St. Valentine’s Day until nearly Independence Day to find that out. I’d do it again.

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