The marketing strategy for the current crop of popular jazz media darlings -- Diana Krall, Peter Cincotti, Jamie Cullum -- involves deluging them with comparisons to jazz greats of decades past.
These comparisons are never flattering, but since they often influence the choice of material, it complicates the business of sorting out influences.
Diana Krall, in particular, claims some inspiration from the intimate arrangements of Nat King Cole's piano trio, which achieved tremendous popular success in the 1940s. But Cole's career choices make a poor map: the concentration on his undoubted vocal talents disguised a ferocious talent as a pianist, partly for commercial reasons. His profile as a mass popular entertainer -- instead of the serious improviser that he certainly could have become -- was deeply imbedded in America's racial politics. There was always an implicit depth to even Cole's most lightweight performances, and the invocation of his coy and playful closeness exposes most of his imitators.
On Gabriela Anders's latest release -- her debut was 1998's Wanting -- the vaunted influence is Billie Holliday. A great many of the songs -- "God Bless the Child", "All of Me", "Body and Soul" among them -- are from Holliday's repertoire. While the influence is probably heartfelt, there is very little direct evidence of it. True, Anders' voice, relatively limited in range, possesses a featherlight vulnerability that lingers towards the end of her lines. Unfortunately, it is mostly lost in the smothering harmonics of the acoustic guitars that dominate the arrangements.
Indeed, it is the arrangements that ultimately stifle this album. The novelty with Gabriela Anders is her Argentinean heritage, which in music industry terms means vaguely tango-sounding instrumentation and some tasteful acoustic guitars. As with Krall, the relatively restrained arrangements represent an improvement on the advertiser-friendly post-fusion 'smooth jazz' material that has dominated jazz radio playlists for years. But the close acoustic guitar voicings, the whimsical and meandering bandoneon riffs, and the tidy drum patterns are too deliberately anonymous to bring the songs to life. It sounds like the result of a production template designed to fit the entire album, rather than one crafted around the sensitivities of particular songs. As a result, Anders' attempts to differentiate sultry desire from coy insouciance have nowhere to go. The songs all end up at the same place, always. If there is genuine depth to her vocal talents, and her control and timing suggest that there should be, it cannot overcome the deliberate tidiness of the instrumentation.
There are glimmers of originality here: the crispness of the drum programming clearly owes something to contemporary dance music. Certainly the whispered and cut-off string voicings at the back of "Abracadabra" suggest a trip-hop influence. But it is hard to separate the bandoneon figures and crisp snare shots from the memory of Gotan Project's superior 2001 album La Revancha del Tango.
Still, moments catch the ear. The neat, coiled horn riffs in "The Buenos Aires Mix" -- and the bass/organ lick that closes out the song -- stand out a mile, as if the musicians tried something unscripted which somehow survived the final mix. "God Bless the Child" is the standout track, with an arrangement that again shows a strong influence of popular dance music. It isn't a coincidence that this is the track that takes the most liberties with the source material.
Ultimately, this is a type of music that almost defeats criticism: it is cautiously measured, deliberately tasteful and, of course, quite purposefully unchallenging. The music of Krall, Anders, and others resists display, refuses to challenge; it seems calculated never to aspire beyond the condition of background music. At this it succeeds extremely well, but lacks the outcroppings to enable -- let alone reward -- serious listening.
If this is not merely the result of lack of imagination, or the triumph of marketing taste over musical inspiration, it is presumably drawn from the po-faced introspection of cool jazz -- of Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Stan Getz and, above all, Chet Baker. The stance that these artists took in the 1950s, apparently shunning overt artistic creation and concentrating on the smallest inflections in the performance of winsome ballads, has dominated much of the popular imagery of jazz ever since.
Unfortunately it suffers badly out of context: in the 1950s, their attitude bespoke a turning away from the materialism and conformity emerging as mainstays of American culture -- not to mention a revulsion at mainstream acquiescence in the inequalities of post-war racial and cultural politics. The cool movement's suave wounded romanticism was deliberately counterfeit; a tool to suggest how deeply felt was their ostracism from mainstream life. It was a cue taken up by the Beat movement, inspiring much of the cultural radicalism of the following decades.
Transposed over 50 years from cellar dive to wine bar, the result is not pretty. The refusal to call attention to unbridled musical flair, the studied attempt to dodge the natural cadences of songs -- these gestures signal not rebellion but indifference, a willingness to comfortably acquiesce in pure commercialism, in the yuppie values of their target audience.