Ever since Diana Krall released one of the finest jazz tribute albums ever in All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio, the jazz Gestapo have been trying to paint the Canadian diva as a Benedict Arnold of sorts. Indeed, for a time early in the millennium, Krall was humming dangerously close to easy listening, stunted by the grandiose orchestras to which she handcuffed herself with The Look of Love and Quiet Nights. The elegant, agile interpretations of standards she was keen on had given way to pillow talk and overly lush arrangements, and the rare bird of jazz — a skilled vocalist and player — was quickly morphing into an overexposed pop star.
She also built quite the voracious audience in the near decade between those works. If you blinked when tickets to her March 22 date with the Durham Performing Arts Center went on sale, you very likely missed out; the show was sold out for months prior. But for all the grief she’s absorbed from the hardliners, Krall is still capable of spinning one of the most entangling webs in jazz. She led off with her interpretation of the Marcos Valle’s “So Nice,” one that swung with a little more determination than the well worn original, but also served as an instrumental introduction for the rest of her quartet.
On drums was Karriem Riggins, whose gracefully brushed accents to “I’ll String Along with You” — to which fellow Detroit native Robert Hurst lent a furious bass solo — would’ve caught anyone familiar with his work with Madlib or Slum Village off guard. He did summon the boom-bap, or at least the bimp-bap, of Yesterday’s Universe during Krall’s kitschy take on Nat King Cole’s “Frim Fram Sauce.” Krall’s infatuation with King (and likewise, Gershwin, Berlin and Waller), she noted, came from a combination of her rural upbringing and her father’s love of old 78s. She slithered around his cocktail jazz classic “Exactly Like You” while guitarist Anthony Wilson coaxed brilliant chromatic runs out of his pristine Monteleone archtop.
Krall is mostly considered just a pretty good vocalist and a pretty good pianist by her peers, but how Krall is able to reinvent familiar songs into something extraordinary is her hallmark. Her penchant for random, but endearing, anecdotes notwithstanding, Krall delivered her set with penetrating charisma. She fleshed the simple cowboy ditty “Don’t Fence Me In” into a plea for mercy, the subtext of this newest addition to her songbook being its inclusion on the upcoming compilation to benefit Every Mother Counts (Krall’s array of stories about her own children and her husband Elvis Costello suggest this is a cause for which she’s most passionate).
Elsewhere, her solo recitation of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” was a breathless, pin-drop moment, and her accompanying selection of Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” was its polar opposite — a clatter of contrapuntal piano and guitar licks, commanding bass and fried hi-hats. In an otherwise quiet performance, that particular selection was enough to fill the room with noise. Yet, Krall still managed to engender a sense of closeness with her listeners that pulls them into her own personal narrative. That’s the sign of a great jazz singer, more so than range and strength of voice, and her firm presence and resolute dignity place her among the finest there is.