Getting to Know Diana Krall

I’m in concert prep mode. You know how you get geared up for a concert by listening to all the songs you’re going to hear that night? Tonight I’m going to see Diana Krall at Royal Albert Hall (which is the Carnegie Hall of London). Krall is a Canadian jazz musician, and I love jazz. Wikipedia tells me her voice is a “contralto.” I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what that meant, so I looked it up:

…a type of classical female singing voice with a vocal range somewhere between a tenor and a mezzo-soprano. The term is used to refer to the deepest female singing voice. […] The contralto voice has the lowest tessitura of the female voices and is noted for its rich and deep vocal timbre.

What a perfect description. When you click on one of the videos below, you’ll see what they mean by “rich and deep.” She has 2 Grammy’s and has been nominated for 6 others. Let’s warm up with one of those nominees, “Why Should I Care”…

  Now it’s trivia time:

Of course, when it comes to analyzing music, I turn to the experts. Here’s Ted Gioia (whose latest book, Delta Blues, is superb) comparing her to the most successful contemporary female jazz musician, Norah Jones:

But Jones is not the only megastar in our firmament. Ali needed Fraizer, Bird needed Magic, and Norah Jones needs Diana Krall – a challenger to the title of leading jazz diva of the new millennium, to keep the competition interesting and everyone on their toes. Krall can’t match Jones’ CD sales – her releases only sell in the millions, not the tens of millions. But when you get to that level, whose counting? Krall long ago established herself as a mega-draw in the jazz world, and her marriage to Elvis Costello means that, if they file joint tax returns, this talented couple more than keep up with Jones’s in the adjusted gross income department.

Krall is more deeply rooted in the jazz tradition than Jones, and her repertoire is not much different than what Ella or Sarah were singing a generation ago. This may sound like the safe choice, but it isn’t. 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.

I would like to go further, and tell you how hard it is for a singer to get the old tunes to sound so fresh, to revivify their inner lives for the MySpace generation. But Krall makes it seem so simple. Yes, there is technique here, although not the obvious kind you see celebrated on American Idol. Take a metronome and measure the tempo on Krall’s version of “I’m Through With Love” (from her All for You CD) and you will find . . . ah, you will find that you can’t do it because your metronome doesn’t have a setting for tempos that slow. (My son has just pointed out to me that I need to double the tempo on the metronome and divide by two to determine the pulse. Where’s that calculator?) The jazzcats who play fast and furious get all the attention, but achieving the “flow state” (to borrow the terminology of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) at a pulse of 35 beats per minute is far more challenging. Krall is marvelous at these tempos. The song breathes, takes on a supple spaciousness as natural and uncluttered as a wide open horizon. Searching for comparisons, I am tempted to mention Carmen McRae or Betty Carter or Shirley Horn, who each demonstrated supple rhythmic phrasing when singing ballads. Or Mark Murphy, who has was always achieved Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state in his performances, but has gotten better with the passing years – his recent all-ballads CD Once to Every Heart is a virtual textbook in loose, unfettered phrasing over slow tempos . But ultimately such comparisons are unfair to Ms. Krall who has established a distinctive voice of her own. She has already earned her own wing in the pantheon of ballad singers.

When I listen to Jones and Krall, I wonder whether these new stylists don’t portend what jazz will sound like after all the modernist and post-modernist agendas fall out of fashion. We will then be left with the music itself, stripped of ideologies, left with songs staying to be true to their own emotional prerogatives. We will no longer debate whether an artist is progressive or reactionary – but instead immerse ourselves in the warmth of the music’s inner glow. When that day comes, when we finally recognize that the history of music as a series of revolutionary developments is over, when song returns to the much richer responsibility of meeting human needs, we will look at these two artists as having been whispering this in our ears all along. At least, that is my dream and, indeed, my expectation.

Except for putting Larry Bird ahead of Magic Johnson, that is as good an insight into jazz as you’re bound to find. Gioia is a first-rate critic. Let’s take his advice and conclude with “I’m Through With Love”…

You know the best part? Your blood pressure just went down 10 points while you were listening to that.