Club Krall

By Jim DeRogatis

Jazz fans can be such snobs. For all our High Fidelity obsessiveness and occasional lapses into cultural myopia, at least we rockers are rarely elitist out of a sheer, simple disdain for populism. I mean, the Beatles stand as one of the most successful rock bands ever (the best-selling group of 2001, in fact), and they also happen to have had considerable artistic merit. I’ll truck no high-minded, post-feminist defense of Britney Spears’ lowest-common-denominator pandering, but I’ll fight long and hard about the merits of Smash Mouth, and I have a rock-critic peer whose eloquent parsing of the charms of the Backstreet Boys is almost enough to convince you. (Almost.)

Not so with the high-minded jazzbo. He (and it’s almost always a he) is spending an awful lot of time these days kvetching and wailing about the success of Diana Krall, that comely blonde Canadian who has become the best-selling jazz artist of the new millennium. The rap on Krall is that not only is she successful, but she’s actively courting and enjoying success! As if the only career models for the modern torch singer should be the miserable downward spiral of Lady Day or the cloistered cabaret cultdom of the Rosemary Clooney/Bobby Short set.

Granted, Krall’s willful acquiescence to the image-mongering of the modern music biz can seem a little over the top. Witness her progression of cover photos, from the polyester-wearing frump of 1992’s Stepping Out, to the black/white, good girl/bad girl dichotomy of ’96’s All for You, to the leggy vixen in the little black dress on last year’s The Look of Love. She’s even hotter inside the CD booklet, posing as a casually tussled backseat bimbo with a fetching come-hither look that recalls Olivia Newton-John’s post-transmogrification slut in Grease.

Then there were those appearances on Melrose Place, and Krall’s anointing as an icon by the Target department stores. She showed up on the cover of Target the Family, the chain’s holiday advertorial/magazine, dreamily gazing out amid cover lines such as "Beautiful Buffets: Service with style" and "Special Handbag Size!" None of this did much for her serious muso cred.

But hey, in these culturally-constricted, corporate-dominated times, there’s an argument that holds that advertising is actually doing more to bring good art to the masses than radio or the music press. (Call it "the Moby defense.") And even if you insist that Krall is an over-eager sell-out, well, if you’d been raised in the nowhere burg of Nanaimo, British Columbia with a sister who became a Mountie, you’d probably be anxious to buy into something a little more glamorous, too.

There are mitigating factors that give the skeptics pause, including the 37-year-old’s respect for jazz tradition and her exquisite taste in material. She has toured with Tony Bennett, and New York Times critic Stephen Holden has called The Look of Love "the most satisfying collection of orchestrated popular standards to be released since the heyday of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald."

Krall has been choosing songs wisely from the beginning. She tackled Rodgers & Hart and Duke Ellington on her debut, and Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Leslie Bricusse on ’99’s When I Look in Your Eyes. With All for You, she paid an entire album’s tribute to the smoothie who is perhaps her ultimate favorite, Nat (King) Cole. And she’s always found the right vehicle to deliver these classics.

Strings are always a controversial subject in jazz—Charlie Parker got crap for using ’em!—but Krall’s foray into orchestral turf is done right. The Look of Love alternately utilizes the London Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles session orchestra (no hacks here), and the arrangements are all crafted by the much-revered Claus Ogerman, whose collaboration with Michael Brecker on Cityscape was a big influence back in Nanaimo. Keeping things moving with countless variations of a slinky, sultry bossa-nova groove is the world-class rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Peter Erskine. But ultimately it all comes down to The Voice.

It takes a lot more than chops to do something new with the Gershwins’ classic "S’Wonderful" or the standard "Besame Mucho" (which even the Beatles covered), but Krall claims them as her own via sheer force of personality. Here’s where a rocker’s perspective comes in handy. Like Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, or Justine Frischmann of Elastica, Krall’s dark, sensual, smoky vocals deliver more than just lilting and lovely notes. They convey an attitude, and that’s what’s at the heart of her appeal.

There is a hint of irony, a bit of cool postmodern detachment, but most of all an underlying strength and self-assurance that brings new depths of meaning to the traditional romantic lyricism of Look’s 10 tunes, which are carefully sequenced to chart the arc of a very-today relationship. Krall takes us from the first blush of infatuation ("S’Wonderful," "Love Letters"), through betrayal ("Cry Me A River," "The Night We Called It a Day"), to arrive at the modern woman’s uneasy truce between self-reliance and lusty co-habitation ("The Look of Love," "Maybe You’ll Be There").

Jazz and rock extremists alike may dismiss this as lounge music, but if so, Krall commands a lounge that could at any moment reveal itself to be a clandestine bacchanal, or maybe an after-hours S&M club. It’s about time jazz had a riot grrrl, and it’s the purists’ loss if they don’t appreciate her. Meanwhile, like much of America, I say to Diana, "Take me, I’m yours."

--From The Rake, Minneapolis