Yes, Diana Krall is beautiful, a jazz pinup in the most classic sense. With her latest effort, The Look of Love, it is difficult to get much past that superficial observation. The cover and liner photos for the disc make sure of that, featuring no less than 10 glamour shots of the thirty-something Krall in various sultry poses, each complete with that obligatory smoldering, torch singer faraway-look in her eyes -- and none of them have a piano in sight.
Remember that this is the same Diana Krall that broke on the scene only seven years ago with Only Trust Your Heart, her first major label release. With her sophomore offering a little over a year later, All for You (A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio), Krall gained a Grammy nomination and firmly established herself as a formidable talent as not just a vocalist, but a gifted piano player as well.
Krall is known for tackling her interpretations of jazz standards with a commitment to finding her own personal style and maintaining her mischievous sense of humor. Often she translated these attributes on her previous albums into a subtle approach to melodic phrasing in her singing and a strong presence on the keys. Simply said, her piano chops are more than adequate to back up her incredible voice.
Yet this is exactly what makes The Look of Love so maddening. Krall's piano work is practically nonexistent on most of the tracks, save for a few perfunctory solos that often sink into in a sea of overly lush string and orchestral arrangements. Joining Krall on most of the tunes are drummer Peter Erskine and her longtime colleagues Russell Malone on guitar and Christian McBride on bass. However, the powerful improvisational and creative potential of this core ensemble goes untapped.
Instead of a group effort, the bulk of the work becomes a competition between Krall's vocals and Claus Ogerman's orchestral arrangements. Krall's voice is shoved to the front of the mix, forcing the listener to examine every single breathy inhalation and phrase-ending consonant. Likewise, Ogerman's strings sway and swell nearly to the point of bursting and at times border on relegating the tunes to a Disney-esque feel. Known for his work with Barbara Streisand and Shirley Horn, Ogerman attempts to paint Krall with the same wide musical brush without much regard for her full capabilties as an artist.
Opening with a bossa nova treatment of George and Ira Gershwin's "S'Wonderful", Krall imbues the lyrics with sweltering sensuality. Nevertheless, the orchestra demands the listener's attention on this cut and maintains a heavy-handed presence throughout, most notable on "Love Letters", the Hoagy Carmichael classic "I Get Along Very Well", and the disc's title track, "The Look of Love". Each song drips with cinematic string treatments that leave little room for variety or individual distinction.
"Cry Me a River", a flirtatious and bluesy number that plays to Krall's many strengths as a singer and pianist, is one of the few teases of the complete package she has to offer. For the most part she is relegated to merely delivering the vocals and stepping to the side, almost as if she herself has become enthralled by the orchestra and forgotten that a piano solo might be a nice way to break the monotony.
Artists need room to explore, the chance to pay homage to their idols, and the freedom to try on different looks every once in a while. The development of a jazz artist depends on these sorts of forays. Furthermore, the best jazz singers made careers out of constantly reinventing their sound and a brief look at the collective discographies of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, and Shirley Horn support this notion. So now that Krall has had the chance to explore her starry-eyed chanteuse side, hopefully she will strike a balance between this part of her persona and what she does so well, which is both singing and swinging away at the keys.