[23 April 2009]
I suppose it was inevitable that Diana Krall would make a lushly orchestrated bossa nova recording. Her previously lushly orchestrated collection, The Look of Love, is her top seller and contained a couple of sensuous Latin numbers. Krall has a unique voice with a number of luscious contours that are shown off best in slow, quiet settings.
And so Quiet Nights fits the bill: a dozen tracks (seven bossa treatments and five ballads), her own delicate tinkle of piano, a high-class but whispering rhythm section (John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton), and gauzy orchestration by Claus Ogerman. Add to this a seductive cover photo of the beautiful Krall, come-hither look intact, and a photo inside the booklet that might be called… uh, post-nookie. My prediction: bestseller.
This is a very quiet record. To review the disc, I first put it on while my family ate dinner. But it whispered so quietly that it couldn’t rise above our small conversation. Then I put it on in my car while driving my son to school. The day was pleasant, so we rolled down the windows and—whoooooosh!—the songs disappeared beneath the hum of the wind. Krall sings right on top of the microphone, where every breath and every vowel sound has intimacy. Her piano is played with very few chords—mostly upper-octave lines with minimal attack. Even the 36-member orchestra is a light touch. Pastels, not primary colors. You’re going to have to turn up the volume.
Because so many singers have made soooo many bossa records in this style over the years, what does Krall do to make this one stand out? New recordings of “The [Boy] from Ipanema”, “Quiet Nights”, and “So Nice” are not the ticket. The familiar strain of Jobim’s “Ipanema” can elicit groans at a “jazz brunch”, and hearing a truly terrific singer like Krall take it on is not groan-worthy. But nothing here earns our attention other than Krall’s pipes. Ogerman’s arrangement is intelligent and subtle—as really all of them here are—but still a creamy confection designed to soften edges and give the whole affair a feeling of high tone. Ogerman orchestrated The Look of Love as well as many of the bossa records of the 1960s on which Quiet Nights is based, so he’s reliable but… familiar.
When the time comes for Krall to take her piano solos on these familiar tracks, the sparks do not fly. Respectful of the classic bossa records, Krall chooses to tame her usually vigorous approach to the ivories. She plays with the quiet gentility that we all remember from those early jazz-samba records—but an opportunity to add something new and tasty to these overplayed tunes is lost.
The non-bossa ballads are, if anything, more soporific. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” crawls along beautifully, but it still crawls. What a lovely song! What a lovely voice! But after the first eight bars of the vocal, you’ve got it. Anything new here? Not “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry”, despite a lovely piano/vocal-only verse. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” seems stock, and it’s the only song on the record that doesn’t sound comfortable coming out of Krall’s sultry throat. “My Thrill” isn’t heard very often, but the ballad treatment here is fairly standard.
For all that, however, Quiet Nights contains a few surprises, even if they are dressed up in slow finery. “Too Marvelous for Words” gets a rare bossa treatment, and hearing Krall move the syllables around the syncopated groove is a playful pleasure. Even better is the classic Burt Bacharach tune “Walk on By”, set to a super-subtle bossa feel and stripped of just enough of the usual bits of arrangement to allow us to hear this brilliant song as if for the first time. (Diana: Looking for a new gimmick for the next record? All Bacharach, baby. Your husband Elvis Costello already did it, but that’s okay.)
Krall has always been known for making interesting choices of newer repertoire, and here she comes up with a tasty version of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” The quartet handles the first couple of minutes entirely without the orchestra, and they add a healthy dose of gospel to the pop tune, giving it the backbone that was never a Brothers Gibb strength. It is a delight. It’s also nice to hear Krall take on a relatively less well-known Jobim tune, “Este Seu Olhar”, sung in Portuguese with seeming ease and pleasure.
My evaluation of Quiet Nights is surely beside the point. If I’ve heard these tunes and this kind of treatment too often—and if this kind of orchestral ballad-jazz seems like the kind of thing that was heard on a million “easy listening” radio stations in the 1960s—then that just means that this approach is tried and true. Hearing Diana Krall, with all those delicious shades of caramel and cappuccino in her voice, in such a smoooooth atmosphere is the very definition of comfort. Schmaltzy? Sure. Lovely? Probably that too.
Diana Krall doesn’t make this kind of record every time out—not even every other time. She can swing like crazy, and she’s proven herself capable of different styles and significant surprises. So why not give in to her come-hither look and her flute-and-French-horn-padded orchestrations? If you want something knobby and new, look elsewhere. Pour yourself a martini and sit down on the leather couch. Loosen your skinny tie and forget the recession. But don’t blame me if you fall asleep before the disc is over.