Monday, April 6, 2009

Quiet Nights by Diana Krall

I picked up Diana Krall’s recently released CD, Quiet Nights, this weekend and have been playing it like a four-year-old with a Wiggles DVD, i.e. incessantly. I have always had a penchant for standards that goes back to when I was a child digging into my Mom’s 45s (small vinyls with a single song per side for the young’uns in the audience) and discovering the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. singing That Old Black Magic, a version that exemplifies Davis as not merely a great singer, but also one of the finest entertainers of any era.

The secret and challenge in performing standards is not to over-sing them; there is no need. Composers such as Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, et al were geniuses in their ability to weave deceptively simple, yet rich melodies that endure and continue to win over successive generations of fans, regardless of who is singing them. The better entertainers, such as Tony Bennet, Ella Fitzgerald and the aforementioned Davis, are adept at doing this while still making the songs their own.

One need only look at the success of Rod Stewart’s four consecutive top-selling collections of American standards as proof of the power of the genre. A lifetime of excesses have not been kind to the legendary rocker’s voice, which sounds like Brenda Vaccaro with a cold. But the moment music producers propped him in front of a mike with some tunes by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, Stewart’s stock soared once again. He offers little by way of interpretation, but is wise enough not to impose himself onto the tunes. He simply sings them; the songs do the rest.

Krall has been performing standards from a young age, but what raises her performances above others are her breathy, seductive voice, jazzy interpretations and deft piano playing, a winning combination she continues in Quiet Nights. There is a warm, cozy feel to the collection’s ten tunes (twelve in the expanded CD) that is as inviting as a home-cooked meal or enjoying the company of another on a cold winter’s night with a bottle of wine before a crackling fire. Krall doesn’t force the tunes; instead allowing the melodies to be the focus, while still making her mark with occasional piano flourishes, economic pauses and subtle tempo changes.

Compounding the challenge to covering standards is their ubiquity; most have been done to death, and thus more difficult to raise above the fray. Krall wisely chooses some lesser-performed tunes and adds a 60s cover to the regular edition (and a 70s cover to the expanded one) to help keep the collection fresh. Still, she covers at least two songs—Where or When and The Girl From Ipanema (“boy” understandably traded for “girl”)—that could certainly be perceived as overdone. She succeeds in the former with an uptempo version that presents the Lorenz Hart/Richard Rogers classic in a refreshing matter-of-fact way that makes the subject matter more poignant than the maudlin, slow-tempo versions that abound.

Her interpretation of the latter Carlos Antonio Jobim tune is brilliant. As she begins, her tone is that of an uninterested observer, describing the paradigm of manhood that all other women adore. But as she gets to the signature “Ah-h-h-h,” her own desire begins to betray her cool reserve. Her composure reverts at the start of verse two, but crumbles even more quickly as her description becomes more suggestive. By the bridge, her exposure is complete. Her voice acquires a dreamier tone which grows more hopeful as she sings through the phrasing, taking on a note of petulance as the boy continues toward the sea without a hint of regard for the desirous chanteuse. Still, when she “smiles,” her tone is most hopeful, as if the singer is performing this last ditch effort for attention just as she hits the word, only to descend into disappointment immediately thereafter. It is during the short piano solo where Krall’s strength and advantage over other “standard bearers” lie. She even interpolates a chord from a later song from the CD, So Nice, the similar theme of which is captured in the lyrics to the chord she homages (“Someone to hold me tight/that would be very nice”).

Another standout is I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face (again, a trade: his” for “her”). This Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe number from the popular musical, My Fair Lady is the one moment in the show that Henry Higgins lets down his aloof, professorial guard, displaying his true feelings for Eliza Doolittle. It is a song famously “spoken” by Rex Harrison in the original production. Sung from a female perspective with the lovely voicing of Krall, the tune tears at the heart. In the show, there is no doubt Higgins will eventually get the girl, but Krall sings as if her discovery has come too late; there is no additional scene to save the day, just the plaintive words of a woman who let love slip away. Gets me every time.

Quiet Nights isn’t going to convert someone to standards who doesn’t like them, the way the best Black Sabbath album isn’t going to change the minds of anyone who doesn’t like heavy metal. But if you are a fan of the genre, Krall’s latest is a treat.

Quiet Nights receives 4.5 out of 5 spiders.

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