Diana Krall does not need a good review from me, but she is going to get one, a decent but not a great review, anyway. The lady can sing, the lady can play, the lady looks great on an album cover, and the lady is married to Elvis Costello. The lady has sold more jazz records in the past 14 years than just about anyone. Now, we get The Very Best of Diana Krall which is professional, slick-as-a-trick, accomplished and too often dull.
But maybe dull is how most people like their jazz. Diana Krall is not, mind you, a “smooth jazz” artist who records thinly veiled R&B under the slightly hipper guise of it being jazz because there’s a saxophone lurking around somewhere.
Nope, Krall is the real thing, a jazz singer with a nice tone and fine control, not to mention a swinging pianist with actual chops. But what she mostly does is sing the kind of jazz standards that have been heard scores of times before as performed by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and others, rendering them in the style of the legends that preceded her by a few decades.
Krall is simply too good, however, to be a rank copycat. Her vocal delivery is lovely and ripe with personality. She sells the songs as her own, but still in a style that does not much pretend to have the slightest innovation or updating. With an orchestra behind her, she is a sumptuous ballad singer from the ‘50s. With just a trio or quartet behind her, she is a female Nat Cole or a huskier Blossom Dearie. This is good music, friends, even if you’ve heard it all before.
The selections on this “greatest hits” package are just what most Krall fans would want: slow bossa with a Claus Ogerman-arranged orchestra (“The Look of Love”, “‘S Wonderful”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”), emotional ballads drenched in strings (“Only the Lonely”), cute small group swingers, puckishly delivered (“Peel Me a Grape”, “Frim-Fram Sauce”), and outright swingers where the lady is wonderfully relaxed (“East of the Sun”, “Fly Me to the Moon”). Taken as a whole, the disc testifies to Krall’s distinctive burgundy voice, an instrument that sounds good on a wide spectrum of jazz. Krall sings with warmth but utterly without histrionics (no “Look at me! I’m a crazy jazz singer!”), no scatting, no over-embellishment, no attempts to sound like anyone other than herself. She is arguably superb at updating the sound of traditional jazz singing. Without acting like a faux-soul singer caught on a jazz date by mistake, she makes these songs sound reasonably current. She sings with a cool detachment that is still, well, . . . sexy.
The sex appeal is not lost on anyone involved in the enterprise that surely must be Diana Krall, Inc. Sunny blond tresses fall across her face on every album cover, and one of the photos inside of the CD booklet here, in essence, peeks down into the cleavage of her provocatively opened white blouse. On the front of Krall’s website, two of the photos have her in bed, in one covering her chest with her hands, in the other in a gold dress and heels looking keenly off to the side. Maybe she’s looking at Elvis Costello . . . but maybe she’s looking at ME!
I mention this packaging mentality not to avoid or to run down Krall’s talent. But the urge behind this Very Best of Diana Krall collection is to keep the artist easy on the ears as well as easy on the eyes. Her three most zesty discs are under-represented here (four total songs), while her romantic discs (The Look of Love, Love Scenes, When I Look in Your Eyes, you get the idea) rack up 11 tracks. The two selections from her assertive Live in Paris give you the sense of Krall the swinger and jazz player. On “East of the Sun” she plays a long, fleet solo, spurred on by John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton on bass and drums, easily quoting “Sweet Georgia Brown” with natural swing and matching her singing to the piano lines. Cool! “Fly Me to the Moon” is good enough to make you forget Frank.
More thrilling still is the lone instance here where Krall sings like someone who was actually born the year that the Beatles came to America. Her take on the Tom Waits classic “The Heart of Saturday Night” is triumphant. Though a jazz trio and her own piano back her, the tune feels like the best kind of recent pop music; a mixture of folk tale-telling, rock attitude, and jazz/blues harmony. This track, from her post-Costello album of contemporary material (The Girl in the Other Room), seems like a door that Krall has only peeked past so far in her career. The good folks at Verve probably would rather keep her selling out polite halls, but here’s hoping that flings the door open follows a different kind of dare.
The traditional material that works best for her voice remains the puckish stuff that she surely sings in her sleep. Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me a Grape” is funny and sexy at once, and Krall essentially owns it these days. Her love for Nat Cole drips from “Frim Fram Sauce”, and so will you. Too much of The Very Best of Diana Krall, however, is for bedtime, either the fun kind or the sleepy kind.
Me? I’d rather dance, or tap my toe, or listen intently to Diana Krall. She’s got the goods, musically, I mean. And when she’s unleashed as a jazz musician, there’s more than enough style and substance for a true fan. This collection is too much frill and not enough frim-fram sauce, not enough oh-sen-fay with shi-fa-fah on the side. After a full listen, you’re still hungry for dessert.