Diana Krall/Chris Botti

Diana Krall is an entertainer—a terrific musician and a captivating vocal stylist—but not an innovator. She fully understands that and doesn’t attempt to prove otherwise. She’s not about diving headlong into black holes and exploring the unknown. There are no left-field surprises, no gasp-inducing risks, nothing jarring that changes the steady course of the music. Interpreting standards in a straightforward manner within a classic small-group jazz structure is what she does, and at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center the singer/pianist and her three sidemen—guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff Hamilton—did it as well as it can be done.

Krall’s inspiration, judging by the number of times she mentioned them here, is more along the lines of Nat “King” Cole and Peggy Lee. Call it mainstream, call it whatever you like—Krall’s user-friendly iteration of the timeworn format has brought many into jazz who’d never otherwise have known they even like it.

Her playing is self-assured, bluesy, occasionally complex but often deceptively simple. She’s fleet-fingered, frisky, intricate and clever, and she makes smart choices. Krall understands the value of space and silence as thoroughly as she knows how to manipulate dynamics and when to fill those spaces. She cherishes conventional melodic patterns and has a penchant for chunky chords that make a noticeable impression in the back rows. Her vocal delivery is warm, genuine, intimate and pleasing to the ear. There’s nothing threatening or difficult to understand about Diana Krall, yet nothing fake or tentative about her either. What you see is what you hear: She’s as devoted to the furthering of her art as anyone else out there, but she’s not in it for art’s sake. Diana Krall enjoys her popularity.

And let’s not kid: Krall’s massive crossover popularity isn’t entirely due to her musicianship. She’s a looker—watch as she flicks back her long blonde hair one more time; check out that impish grin, admire her personable stage presence and wonder what’s behind that mischievous demeanor. When her likeability meets up with her easily digestible music, it’s no wonder she’s emerged over the past decade as one of the best-selling artists in contemporary jazz.

That there is an element of cabaret to her show, even as she plays to audiences hundreds of feet away in increasingly larger venues, is a testament to Krall’s ability to endear. When she spoke about her new family life—Krall and husband Elvis Costello gave birth to twins boys last year, “the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she confided—she could have been sitting around the kitchen with a few girlfriends. She joked about post-pregnancy weight problems and a desire to make sure she exposes her children to music that’s not “sultry”—like so much of her own. Unlike some serious jazzers, Krall exudes approachableness, just another mom dropping the kids off at daycare (in a few years, anyway).

Approachable, but in no way flippant. She can be a toughie; she wears many moods and isn’t the least bit apologetic about the darker ones. At the acoustically perfect, visually stunning, 10-year-old Newark venue, reminiscent of Carnegie Hall with its multiple semi-circled tiers, a sense of melancholy infiltrated many of Krall’s performances. For “If I Had You,” one of four songs Krall performed from her 1996 tribute album to Cole, All For You, she gave the band a break, imbuing her solo reading with a palpable desolation. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which Krall said she learned from Cole “when I was about 5,” and “You Call It Madness,” also from the Cole tribute, were played as hushed, minimal, bluesy dirges.

But just as easily, she turned on her ebullient charms. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” one of several songs taken from her 1999 When I Look in Your Eyes set, took on a swinging samba rhythm, Krall’s upper-register tinkling and thoughtful vocal setting an appropriately tender tone. “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” from that same album, was bright and swinging and Bob Dorough’s introspective “Devil May Care” was a snug fit for Krall’s contralto, as well as an opportunity to engage in some of the evening’s trickiest tempo shifts and impressive improv. For her final encore, Krall pulled the biggest surprise of the night with the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” capturing its mustiness and loneliness and leaving open the possibility of future expansion of her repertoire into unexpected zones.

Krall is no showoff, and she gave her band plenty of room to display their acumen. Dorothy Fields’ “Exactly Like You,” from Krall’s 2006 album From This Moment On, provided guitarist Wilson with a number of opportunities to fill the holes that Krall left open. He’s a smooth, crafty, if conventional player who would probably be happy to cut loose more often than he can in this setting. The two Peggy Lee numbers, “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “I Love Being Here With You,” and the first encore, the George Gershwin perennial “’S Wonderful” (one of several songs performed that will appear on Verve’s upcoming The Very Best of Diana Krall), found the rhythm section consistently in the pocket—in her accompanists, Krall has found an entirely sympathetic group that swears its allegiance to their leader and knows how far afield they can fly.

Krall, whose phrasing is never less than impeccable and whose arrangement judgments are laudable, inherently puts the song first. She’s a first-rate leader and, though not a visionary, an artist who has successfully kept alive the art of interpretation.

Krall couldn’t have picked a more appropriate touring mate than Chris Botti. Derided in some circles as being a saccharine smoothie, the trumpeter’s hour-long set here largely disproved the notion. Granted, there were moments when Botti fell prey to lethargy and pandered to the Kenny G crowd, but those were relatively few. Instead, the heavily reverbed Botti played up his devotion to masters from Chet to Miles, spitting out fiery staccato bursts, holding notes steadily before losing them to chaotic flurries, and burrowing deep within a song in exploration of its nuances. His set allowed for considerably more adventure than his reputation would suggest.

There is, admittedly, a decidedly round edge to Botti’s playing; no dissonance here. But avant-ness is not expected of him and, like Krall, he masters his chosen niche just swell. The Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me,” from Botti’s 2004 When I Fall in Love CD, was orchestral and lush, and on two consecutive covers of Leonard Cohen compositions, “Hallelujah” and “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (the latter the title track of another album), Botti displayed a tendency toward dynamic shifts even while maintaining a beguiling minimalism.

Like Krall, Botti earns points among audiences for the eye-candy factor, but he earns more for fronting a superb group of musicians. Mark Whitfield (guitar), Peter Martin (keyboards) and James Genus (bass) did more than play follow the leader—they breathed life into Botti’s arrangements and felt no compunction about cutting loose when given their cue. And drummer Billy Kilson was a multi-limbed madman, a precision powerhouse who will likely someday be Botti’s loss and someone else’s gain when he finds a venue in which he can truly go wild. Enjoyable as he was to watch here, the man needs his freedom.

It would be imprudent to claim that either Diana Krall or Chris Botti is pointing the way toward the future of jazz. But it would be not at all untrue to say that they are two reasons why record companies and concert hall bookers are still paying attention to jazz at all in these times of a rapidly capsizing music industry.

1 Comment

  • Nov 17, 2009 at 05:34PM Holla

    The only concert that even came close to Krall and Botti, in Atlantic City, NJ was one I saw in Chicago, Il with Grover Washington, Jr and his fantastic band.
    If you want a concert that will draw you into the world of important music and musicianship, both with the headliners and their musician support, see Botti and Krall.

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!