Jazz critics have a tendency to recycle the same ideas over and over again regardless of whether any actual evidence exists to support their position. A favorite punching bag for decades has been the jazz artist “selling out” by leaving jazz to become “commercial.” When Diana Krall’s CDs began camping out at the top of the Billboard Jazz Chart and she started making the rounds on the late night talk shows, you could almost hear the critical knives being sharpened. The subsequent backlash has been so transparent as to be embarrassing. It’s not that Diana Krall is beyond criticism, but simply that she is not who these critics accuse her of being. If Ms. Krall is planning to abandon jazz, she certainly didn’t give any sign of it at her sold-out Monday night concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida. Her good looks and natural reserve give Ms. Krall a coolly glamorous stage presence, yet there was nothing of the self-aggrandizing pop diva in her style. Seated at the piano for the entire performance, she made no pretense at being an entertainer. She didn’t play to the audience, and, indeed, often stepped on her own applause by launching into the next tune before the cheering died down. During the songs, she seemed completely absorbed in the music. When she did stop to talk, her between song patter was brief, cautious and displayed occasional flashes of a dry wit. However, for most of the evening Ms. Krall seemed content to let her music speak for her, and that music was, unmistakably, small group jazz – acoustic, swinging, improvised. The tempos were brisk and the instrumental solos were plentiful. Although it simply said “Diana Krall” on the marquee, this was clearly a performance of the Diana Krall Quartet. Ms. Krall, Jon Faehnle on guitar, Ben Wolfe on bass, and Rodney Green on drums formed a tightly knit, tightly swinging ensemble. Ms. Krall’s piano playing was adroit, precise and stylish, and, as the leader, she deftly shaped the group’s performance while still giving the sidemen a great deal of room to stretch out. Nearly every song contained extended instrumental sections with “Fly Me to the Moon” sounding closer to an instrumental with vocal refrain. Ms. Krall’s honeyed contralto was in exceptionally good form throughout the evening. She consistently reshaped melodic lines but did so in a way that further emphasized a song’s lyrical content. She used portamento and dynamics as a means of focusing attention on, or away from, particular words or phrases. Her bossa nova version of “’S Wonderful” deflated the song’s titular conceit and allowed the rest of the lyrics to tell their story. On an exceptional “All or Nothing At All,” her phrasing subtly manipulated time for dramatic effect – often running a series of notes ahead of and then dropping back behind the beat.
“Devil May Care,” “Frim Fram Sauce” and a lightning paced “I Love Being Here With You” were all taken at tempos noticeably faster than their recorded versions. “East of the Sun” and “Let’s Fall In Love” stuck closer to their preset arrangements, but a hard swinging, beautifully phrased “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” prefaced with a series of Blues embellishments, surpassed its recorded counterpart both in terms of creativity and nuance.
Ms. Krall displayed a musical and emotional conservatism on the up-tempo tunes that made her performances impressive but not adventurous and enjoyable but not riveting. The ballads, though, proved to be another matter entirely. Ms. Krall only sang three of them, but she managed to turn each into a psychological study of the dangers of love. Her slow, aching “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” brought to the surface the self-destructive undercurrent of romantic obsession often overlooked in that Cole Porter song. The absence of the orchestra found on her recording of the tune made this performance darker and more engrossing. On “Cry Me a River,” Ms. Krall deftly modulated between hurt, anger and sarcasm, and her performance literally stopped the show. However, the evening’s tour de force came with a solo piano/vocal rendition of “A Case of You.” Ms. Krall first sang the song at a televised Joni Mitchell tribute concert last year, but her interpretation has deepened with time. On this evening, she seemed to come at the song from the inside wrapping the words around herself so completely that the boundaries between singer and song all but disappeared. In terms of sheer expressiveness, it was a performance that ranked with Sinatra’s “One for My Baby” or Holiday’s “I Loves You, Porgy.” If she can capture that emotional depth on record, she will have found her first signature song.