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Jazz's Favorite Torch Bearer Takes On Original Material and Obscure Covers on Latest Album

After hearing Diana Krall’s last studio release, 2001’s The Look of Love (Verve), I felt really guilty. Here was one of my favorite contemporary artists sharing with us a project that was in many aspects a labor of love, and I was bored. The album sounded like a big yawn to me. On paper, the idea was quite nice – Krall teams up with Claus Ogerman for an album of Sinatra-inspired torch songs and a bit of bossa nova. With plenty of great models to aspire to, especially Sinatra’s timeless Only the Lonely (Capitol), Diana was sure to come up with something on the same level as her infectious tributes to Nat “King” Cole.

The problem with The Look of Love was perhaps one peculiar to my own personal taste, but I couldn’t stand hearing an album where every song sounded the same. Yes, such a criticism is a horrendous and lazy cliche, but hear me out on this. The tempos were more or less all the same on all the songs. The dynamics were rarely, if ever, all that varied. Each track was great, taken as an individual performance. Put together, I was hearing a 12 song album that was far less than the sum of its parts.

Coming after When I Look In Your Eyes (Verve), an album where variety was the rule, The Look of Love was a huge let-down.

The Girl In The Other Room (Verve), however, has restored my faith in Ms. Krall’s ability to craft top-notch studio albums. Not only has variety been restored – tempos, rhythms and dynamics all vary from song to song – it has also given me, and all of us, a new reason to celebrate this gifted singer/pianist’s art.

Since her arrival on the scene more than a decade ago with her debut album, Steppin’ Out (Justin Time), Krall has made a name for herself as a gifted interpreter of standards classic pop and jazz tunes. Songs like “All or Nothing at All,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Peel Me a Grape,” to name but a few, are the bait that has snagged an audience that spans generations. The Girl in the Other Room, however, marks a significant departure from the tried and true standards – it is the first album she has released where more than half of the material is newly written. Not only that, the covers are more obscure than one would expect to find on a Diana Krall album.

Even beyond that, the six new originals also mark the debut of Krall’s songwriting partnership with her husband, Elvis Costello. For someone who has been experiencing unprecedented sales catering to an audience that loves to hear her play the old chestnuts, this was indeed a brave move.

It is early yet to determine how her audience will react, but one listen should be enough for anyone to hear how the risky proposition of writing new songs with hubby has affected Krall’s art. Quiet simply put, these are some of the most exciting performances Krall has documented in the studio.

The album is top-loaded with the ‘safest’ numbers on the disc – Mose Allison’s “Stop This World,” Tom Waits’ “Temptation,” and a lovely rendition of Costello’s “Almost Blue.” However, the real goodies are to be found on the second half of the disc, where Krall sets her breathy vocals against a variety of semi-exotic rhythms and some of her most aggressive, confident piano playing in the studio. Whereas on previous releases she has tickled the ivories, here she plays with them like a cat pouncing on her scurrying prey. Guitarist Anthony Wilson is also feeling the excitement of the freshness of the material and Diana’s vigorous playing, as he turns out some forceful and downright funky solos.

Performances of this quality are not unusual in Krall’s live performances. Finally she has put out a studio album that captures the excitement of the stage. That she also happens to be writing songs now with a lyricist whose talent allows him to compose material worthy of interpretation by a top-notch jazz artist is itself a major landmark. The lack of recognizable standards on this album should not deter anyone from opening their ears to the new music of an artist who certainly shows no signs of giving up on setting standards.

May 3, 2004
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