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Diana Krall’s Solo Performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival

Without her band in tow, the veteran falters

Diana Krall
Diana Krall

The damp, overcast and altogether unseasonal weather might not have thrilled organizers during opening weekend of the 34th annual Montreal International Jazz Festival. But it didn’t bother Diana Krall one bit.

“I thank you for letting it rain,” remarked the 46-year-old native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada during her festival show on Sunday night (6/26). “I’m sort of homesick for Vancouver. I work better when it’s miserable weather.”

Krall could use all the help she could get-even from the weather-at Theatre Maisonneuve Place des Arts. The jazz superstar, who has sold more records than basically anybody else in the genre over the last 18 years, was doing something different for this sold-out three-night run, stepping out of her comfort zone to perform her first-ever solo shows at the request of festival organizers.

And she looked and sounded the part on opening night, coming across not only like somebody who had never done this before but (even worse) like someone who had no real interest in doing it.

It was a vastly different experience than seeing Krall perform with her regular quartet. She seemed as fidgety and uncomfortable as a cat on a hot tin roof during her solo show, flaying at her attempts at witty stage banter (never Krall’s strong point), trying to overcompensate for the absence of her band mates on several songs, making mistakes at both the microphone the piano and, in general, looking like she wanted to be anyplace but onstage.

Maybe it was just a case of opening night jitters, an understandable enough explanation given the undertaking. One certainly hopes her show improved as the run progressed. Or maybe it didn’t, which might explain why Krall has avoided performing solo for so long.

Krall, whose husband, Elvis Costello, was in the building on opening night, certainly had a game plan going into the show. It was to take a musical stroll down Memory Lane, a narrative that would allow her to revisit the music that influenced her during her formative years. Yet, this theme hindered more than helped, strictly fencing her into a program that allowed little room for spontaneity and improvisation. When things weren’t going well for Krall, which was often, she simply kept trudging through the muck, when a savvy veteran should’ve been able to read the crowd (or her own feelings) and make the required corrections.

Looking stunning in a sleeveless, knee-length black dress, Krall started off fairly strong as she opened the 100-minute set with a breathy, sultry version of the Dave Frishberg composition “Peel Me a Grape,” which Krall originally featured on her fourth album, 1997’s Love Scenes. Yet, that initial momentum would wear off by the second number, a tenuous take on the old Bing Crosby chestnut “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?,” as her piano work began to feel strained. She made a nice entrance into a piano part, but didn’t know what to do with it, as if she was looking for somebody else to step in and solo. Unfortunately, her regular guitarist, Anthony Wilson, wasn’t there to do the heavy lifting.

By the third number, the standard “Come Dance With Me,” Krall was visibly frustrated with the way things were going. She let out a sigh of exasperation toward the end of the song, answering the lyric “When the band begins to leave the stand …” with the commentary “I think they’ve already left.”

She then entered into a segment in honor of one of her earliest influences, Fats Waller. (Waller must have been in the air-Anat Cohen also covered the great jazz pianist during her jazz festival set later that same night.) This segment produces the evening’s finest moment, a gorgeous, supple take on “Keepin’ Out of Mischief,” which Krall dedicated to Costello.

Things deteriorated from there, as a tongue-tied Krall faltered at the microphone at the beginning of the Gene Austin favorite “Everything’s Made for Love,” forcing her to remark, “I will start this again.”

It was a similar story during her tribute to Oscar Peterson, which consisted of a trying take on the old Gershwin classic “I Was Doing All Right,” only this time the trouble came on the keys. During this song, which Krall recorded on 2006’s From This Moment On, she stumbled during one particularly meaty piano part, again remarking, “I’ll try that again.” Her second pass was equally inadequate. And when she remarked at the song’s conclusion, “This is fun,” it was difficult to believe her.

It wasn’t fun. But hopefully the next two nights of Krall’s first-ever solo performances proved more enjoyable for the fans as well as the star herself.

Originally Published