Return of the Big Band Goddess: Diana Krall’s Vanilla Pleasures

Diana Krall, 33, spent a childhood in small-town British Columbia buried in her father’s jazz record collection, watching black-and-white movies and presumably being shunned by her peer group. She’s transmuted all that into a glamorous retro cottage industry, in the course of the past seven years pumping out five albums mostly of Tin Pan Alley: Stepping Out (Enja); Only Trust Your Heart , All for You and Love Scenes (all on Impulse-GRP); and now the latest, When I Look in Your Eyes (Verve). If you’re a fan, they’re exquisitely burnished jazz-pop; too proficient by half, if you’re not. Like Harry Connick Jr., another backwards-gazing singer-pianist, she’s a freak of competence, a scientist of musical nostalgia.

But let’s be fair. The retro résumé can hardly be construed as some sure-fire bid for commercial success. A younger generation of neo-classical instrumentalists has discovered that the past doesn’t necessarily sell, something that may be dawning on legions of would-bejazz chanteuses waiting in the wings at restaurant open-mikes. You’ve got to bring something a little special to the party.

On June 23 at the JVC Jazz Festival, the drama of this elegant blonde woman singing breathy love songs and accompanying herself with a spare, intelligent jazz piano turned a Carnegie Hall audience into a bunch of smitten supper-clubbers. Ms. Krall would seem to have tapped into an atavistic yearning for what critic Will Friedwald has dubbed “the cult of the white goddess,” a yearning fueled by handsome, mostly unadventurous singers who, as he writes in Jazz Singing , “decorated the fronts of swing bands like the figureheads on a ship.” Ms. Krall returns us to the guilty vanilla pleasures of Jo Stafford, June Christy and Miss Peggy Lee. She’d probably be a star in any era, only in this one, young fogey Ms. Krall gets to take transgenerational crib notes.

On When I Look in Your Eyes , Ms. Krall shows the good sense to depart only slightly from the formula that’s earned her a workhorse touring schedule and more records sold than any serious current jazz singer outside of Ms. Wilson. The voice is a given. Ms. Krall’s clear alto could be described as bland if she weren’t such an artful minimalist, a bit of lisp or drawl for spice, an extra measure of huskiness or a slight catch in the throat to suggest the confessional intimacy that is the sine qua non of this sort of cabaret jazz. And as with her Glamour Girl predecessor, Peggy Lee, where the modest pipes leave off the immaculate musicianship takes over, a rhythmic flexibility that allows her to play with the weight of a line in an easy and natural way, no matter how lugubrious the tempo.

The programming of the new album should, by now, be familiar to Ms. Krall’s fans. Like Gaul, it’s divided into three parts: standards, taken slow (“Let’s Face the Music and Dance”) and slower (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”); novelty tunes, usually of a finger-snapping, jivey nature (Michael Franks’ “Popsicle Toes”); and then the songs that she finds in her grandmother’s trunk, like an old bit of Irving Berlin hack work, “The Best Thing for You.” Ms. Krall is a student of the American Songbook-an “A” student, the kind that less industrious types sometimes find annoying-and she’s fast becoming a tune excavator of Bobby Shortian dimensions.

On the new album, Ms. Krall and producer and label head honcho Tommy LiPuma make enough point-of-purchase differences to keep things interesting. They keep her core trio intact-she and guitarist Russell Malone and bassist John Clayton do an impressive job reprising the instrumentation of the classic Nat King Cole trio, another acknowledged musical model, with Mr. Malone’s plummy tone and buoyant lines an especially nice complement to Ms. Krall’s own terse accompaniment. But on seven of the 12 tunes, the maestro of Malibu, Johnny Mandel, throws in some unspecified orchestral effects making more explicit the singer’s connection to the big-band-fronting white goddesses and golden girls of yesteryear. Still, it’s all very tasteful, understated stuff, so we’re spared, or cheated out of, from another perspective, something like Peggy Lee fighting her way through those leadpipe Decca arrangements of the 50′s. The other departure on When I Look in Your Eyes is Ms. Krall’s selective use of a bossa nova feel. She says she was after a João Gilberto delicacy, which seems like a logical extension of her indigenous swing-time cool. On her ’96 album, All for You , Ms. Krall sang the possibly scatological “Frim Fram Sauce,” recorded by the Cole trio in the 40′s, but for the most part she steers clear of the carnal in favor of the jaunty or the earnestly romantic. Adding the bossa to her repertoire lends new tang to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and one more musical strategy to distance herself from the frim fram sauce.

Ms. Krall puts me in mind of Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren, those contained Hitchcock blondes, and of a line by Downtown music philosopher Arto Lindsay from the liner notes of a João Gilberto album: “In his restraint, he is most devastating.” That said, on the new album she has fun with the obvious double-entendre of the Gershwin tune “Do It Again”-the revenge of the repressed. But the song I’ll carry with me from When I Look in Your Eyes is the Leslie Bricusse title number, which she sings with what I’d like to imagine is the virginal ardor of a schoolgirl poetess. However you picture it, it might take your breath away. It’s easy to dismiss Diana Krall, but I must confess, I don’t.