A Decade of Diana
A great pianist was once asked, how did he ever
So it is with the reigning Queen of contemporary jazz/pop recordings, for almost a decade now, the spaces in between make Diana Krall's music. Once the bedraggled Billie Holiday stood alone in the spotlight, grasping the tilting microphone stand and leaning body and soul into her singing. In the smoky gray of Diana Ross' movie and in real life, Billie keened sad love songs in such a mournful, struggling way that she came to epitomize the melodic crooning of soulful female torches forever. Then and now, Billie was the "Lady Sings the Blues."
Now Diana, as healthy as a Scandinavian skier, proudly sits center stage at the keyboard of her black grand piano, in the broad daylight of modern recordings. Diana enthusiastically belts out classic jazz standards as smoothly as Katrina Witt slides across ice, and as coolly as Scotch follows cigars. For she is not "Lady Sings the Blues."
Diana Krall is the luminous standard bearer of the torchy night club ingénue made famous by the smoky Billie Holiday, but with a breath of fresh pine-filled mountain air. At Christmas time, her face and music was everywhere. Stacks of her CDs filled the beginning, middle and end of the jazz shelves at Barnes & Noble bookstores. Her face filled the page for a Newsweek magazine story on a charity event. Target stores made her life a centerpiece of their seasonal catalog. This is the decade of Diana. She is the best selling female jazz vocalist.
I once thought her young; she is not. I once thought her as a new fresh face, just starting out; she is not. I once thought of her as small, demure and easily influenced by a manager who spied a niche for a fresh young face in the dusty halls of jazz. I once thought she aimed for the contemporary jazz/pop sound as an un-crowded venue ripe for the picking. But Diana Krall, tall and blonde like Kim Bassinger, is a middle-aged, experienced jazz singer and pianist, who is not many things I once thought her to be.
In fact the tall British Columbia native from Western Canada began playing piano at the age of four. At age fifteen she began performing old-time piano classics learned from her father's collection, and family sing-alongs, for weekend crowds at a local restaurant. Diana then won a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music and matured in Los Angeles under the tutelage of experienced musicians.
A Decade of Diana
Even with a decade of discs released so far, I cannot get enough of her music. "She is," as Robert Palmer sings, "my addiction." Diana is not as darkly moody as the crooning Billie. While stronger than K.D. Lang, she does not show off the impressive extension of Sarah McLachlin or Whitney Houston. Diana does not have the higher lilt of Linda Ronstadt. Her work is stronger, more polished, more engaging than the wonderful Patricia Barber or Holly Cole. If you like artists such as Billie Holiday, K.D. Lang, even Linda Ronstadt, I think you will like Diana Krall. If you appreciate the work of Patricia Barber and Holly Cole, you will relish Diana.
I think all her stuff is good. Nice stuff. Great voice. Small band. Simple tunes. All of her releases have booklets inside with several glamour style photos of her. Her first release of Stepping Out is just as good as all of her others. Her second CD, Only Trust Your Heart, with its tribute to the Nat King Cole trio, earned Diana's first Grammy nomination. Love Scenes with its playfully seductive ditty, "Peel Me A Grape" (and pop me a cork) topped Billboard jazz charts for 1998, earning a second Grammy nomination.
Then When I Look In Your Eyes won the Best-Engineered Non-Classical Recording award. In 1999, Krall finally won a Grammy, and was nominated for the Album of the Year. Suddenly very popular, her music graced a score of TV shows and movies. Although weaker than some of her previous work, Diana's release this fall, The Look of Love, has already sold gold. One of Diana's recent releases is a special revelation.
Instrumental pop music that emerged in the 1970's is often labeled "contemporary" jazz and reflects the influences found in fusion music. Influences like the smooth fusing jazz of Spyro Gyra and George Benson. Stepping Out is not contemporary fusion jazz. It is not modern Sypro Gyra or Michael Franks. It is 40s and 50s smoky jazz cabaret material like "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (Cole/Mills) and "Body and Soul" (Green/Heyman/Sour/Eyton).
Diana's roots and influences are Nat King Cole, Fats Waller and Peggy Lee. The only criticism leveled against her is that she makes artistically dramatic, though cleaned up white versions of black music. Both the 1993 and the 2000 versions of Stepping Out include:
1) This Can't Be Love, Rogers/Hart
The 2000 version includes "On the Sunny Side of the Street" by Fields/McHugh. While these are old style songs originally recorded eight years ago, the re-mastered version is a futuristic sonic revelation. The 2000 disc of the same name is digitally re-mastered at SNB Mastering in Montreal using 24-bit/96kHz technology. The sound is close to flawless. While I love the DMP and Chesky recordings because they are such great recordings, regular CDs still do sound like just that - great recordings.
Perhaps the optimistic rawness of a talented new artist, combined with the superiority of newly applied technology, makes this CD the jazz/vocals pinnacle, so far, of what CDs can be. For this disc of hers does not sound like a typical recording at all.
She is accompanied on most of her CDs by her two stout fellows, tried and true; Russel Malone on guitar and Christian McBride on bass. But on Stepping Out 2000, when bassist John Clayton draws a bow across the strings, the sound is thick and slow like clover honey dripping into hot tea. It is rich and sweet at the same time - just too much of a good thing. When I listen, my soul hums with a peace and quiet of a country stream in sunshine and a smile rises up from somewhere deep within. Whatever it is like outside, it is a sunny day inside.
When I play her Stepping Out 2000, I am close to audio perfection. This disc, more than any other, has taken me there. I am near the mountain top. I am able to suspend disbelief. If only for a moment, for those delicious seconds, with this stereo, in this dark room, I am able to believe that she and her band are there. Not in the room, but somehow just beyond my front wall. The cymbals shimmer. Her voice sounds the way I heard it last spring. The bass is full and natural. The drums have whack and snap.
In fact, at night with the lights down low, after the amplifier tubes are warm, the dial tipped slightly higher than normal, I sit in the sweet spot and swoon to her masterful crooning and deliberate plinking. I am entertained in no small way. It is something so right that I smile with amusement. I do not know if I am truly a jazz fan. But I do know that I can not get enough of the soft brushing of the cymbals, the strident, deep vibrations of the forcefully plucked bass notes, or the fast snaps of the snare.
More than once, road weary from the driving of life, I have slipped into the nether world reverie which tweaking audiophiles seek as the nirvana for their systems and their souls. I could swear this disc has lulled me into that half-sleep where my brain waves sink to an Alpha state, my mind refreshes itself and my closed eyes move in tiny motions.
More than once, I woke sharply from that somatic bliss, startled by some one speaking. Only to realize that the voice I hear in the dark, as real as can be, is only Diana and the beginning of a new track. Either the road of life is getting longer, or the combination of that clean recording, along with her precise and articulate phrasing of vocals and instrumentation, makes for a deliciously realistic reproduction of the "real" thing.
Perhaps the highest compliment that any one can give any artist is that no one is better than they are. When it comes to diving deep on quiet, dark nights and coming up with audiophile pearls of ethereal pleasure, no one else is better than lovely Diana. The spaces in her music fill my soul.
Sound Quality: 100