This past December, former Downbeat associate editor and part time pundit for the JazzTimes Nat Hentoff pontificated that Jane Monheit and Diana Krall—two of the most popular and successful young female jazz singers working today—were not, in fact, jazz singers. “Krall and Monheit have nothing that interesting to say about themselves in their music,” preaches Hentoff. “Furthermore, [they] don’t have the chops to make it on bravura, which is sometimes impressive technically, though not for long.”
While critics are often cruel, it’s rare to see them cut a young artist down at the knees. In the case of Krall, admittedly there is a lot of image maintenance involved. But as her recent performance at the Midland Theatre in Kansas City proved, she indeed does have a lot to offer besides what Hentoff boils down to just a cute face and a prepackaged sense of pseudo-seriousness.
Within the opulent confines of the Midland’s beautifully preserved Art Deco grandeur, Krall radiated an incomparable sense of charismatic control. From the moment she stepped onstage, dressed in a conservative but alluring black dress, she commanded the complete attention of the sold out crowd. Supported by Jeff Hamilton on drums, Anthony Wilson on guitar, and Pierre Boussaguet on the upright bass, Krall had the opportunity to show that she had more to offer than just a honey-drenched set of pipes, a fact that would be easy to forget considering the direction of her last two albums. With When I Look in Your Eyes and The Look of Love, Krall’s more than capable piano chops are conspicuously absent. In the context of the evening’s performance, however, she didn’t have the benefit of a full symphonic string section to fill in the odd chorus or bridge. Nor did she need one, amply able to provide lush chordal colors and furious arching technical gestures on a moment’s notice.
Leading early with her take on the classic “All or Nothing at All”, Krall built the tune layer by layer, including some tasty brush work from Hamilton and a slick guitar break by Wilson. Carrying a determined and sultry attitude into her repertoire staples, including a smoldering “Let’s Fall in Love”, Krall slowly built the evening up to its most sublime moments. “Cry Me a River”, the strongest cut off of The Look of Love, was sung as if she were a women carrying a heavy vendetta, like a scorned lover that finally ran out of patience five minutes ago, and topped off by a heart-wrenching turn on the keys.
Stopping to recognize her band, Krall was quick to offer her familiar eyes half-closed smirk as she confessed, “I’m so lucky; I love my job.” And the band obviously loved theirs as Boussaguet, Wilson and Hamilton trade grins, winks and musical quotes back and forth for most of the evening. All bandleaders in their own right, Krall was lucky to have assembled a top-notch group that consistently challenged her as player and was not content with merely serving as ornamental window-dressing.
There was the odd surprise or two as well, including a captivating cover of Joni Mitchell’s ode to Canada “A Case of You”. Wonderfully rendered by the Vancouver native, it was an interesting turn on nationalistic pride in the context of the recent swell of American patriotism. A second pop cover, Elton John’s “Border Song”, concluded the evening with a Gospel-inspired impression of uplifting optimism.
In the end (and contrary to what Mr. Hentoff may believe and proclaim) that is one of Diana Krall’s strengths: the ability to take any number of influences and make them uniquely her own. For Hentoff, who carefully claims that “to merit being called a jazz singer you have to have something to say—your own story—as it moves you then and there”, his words of caution appear to be misguided and curiously shortsighted. In the end, it sounds like someone is just too busy justifying their over inflated sense of rapture regarding the past and not trying to take a good hard listen to the here and now.