She is the closest thing jazz has to a pop star, so there's surely temptation to attempt a crossover, a big leap, a Shania-esque out-of-genre plunge into the mainstream. But despite the Lilith Fair gig and that Billy Joel song, the pride of Nanamio, British Columbia, hasn't done so. Good for Diana Krall for resisting, for staying true to her muse and music. Good for us too.
Her latest offering may be her best. The Look of Love is not a concept album, but it has a rich, organic feel. It is a full-blown extension of a notion suggested in Krall's Grammy-winning 1999 disc, When I Look in Your Eyes. On half the tracks of that collection of standards, Krall toyed with a sound beyond piano-guitar-bass. She brought in drums, strings and vibes. Moreover, half a dozen songs had a bossa nova undercurrent. This drift away from Krall's clubby trio sound turned off some critics and even fans, and those who demurred at the time probably won't much like The Look of Love. But trust us, it's a terrific set-perhaps the best jazz vocal album you'll hear this year. And at the heart of its success is a paradox. The more lush and layered the orchestrations, the more Krall, in her singing, gets inside the lyric. It's as if the sumptuous Claus Ogerman orchestrations challenge her to find meaning beyond melody. Krall's style has often been compared with Nat King Cole's, and that's certainly apt, but in The Look of Love she's playing Frank Sinatra's game. In collaboration with the great Nelson Riddle, Sinatra was always faced with the prospect that listeners might remember only the music. He made them remember the song.
A name was dropped back there, and you read it right: Claus Ogerman. The storied arranger, veteran of landmark collaborations with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jo„o Gilberto, Sinatra and pianist Bill Evans, among others, is back-at least back to orchestrating on projects not his own. A tÍte-ŗ-tÍte brokered by longtime Krall producer Tommy LiPuma, who worked with Ogerman on several collections including Gilberto's 1977 masterpiece Amoroso, led Ogerman, who had dedicated most of the past 20 years to composition, to return to chartmaking. On The Look of Love he leads the London Symphony on seven cuts and a session orchestra on three others, providing a sublime curtain of sound behind Krall on piano and a small combo, notably including the intelligent and deft Christian McBride on bass.
The whole grand thing works. If the quirky inventiveness of Krall's piano playing is tempered by the formality of Ogerman's arrangements-she is part of a big, big band here, after all-her singing has never been better. She and LiPuma, who again produces, chose a suite of heart-on-sleeve standards that, so often interpreted and so blatantly romantic, wouldn't survive note-for-note readings. Krall makes them fresh again, even if she can't make them new. The bluesy Cry Me a River works well, and other wee-small-hours ballads are even better. Krall plumbs the story lines of The Night We Called It a Day and I Get Along Without You Very Well with great emotional impact. From across a room this could sound like cocktail-party music, but as you drift closer you're sucked in.
Dancing in the Dark, tossed off by so many singers, is given an earnest reading; this version will last. Sometimes Krall and Ogerman get tricky or go a syncopation too far, as on the Gershwins' S'Wonderful, where a bit of forced vocalese sounds like a hiccup. But by and large, they're on the mark. And as this is music under the influence of Ogerman, the man who arranged Jobim's Wave, it swings gently, sensuously, sometimes hauntingly. He is a German with a Brazilian's soul, and rendering Johnny Mercer's I Remember You as a bossa nova might seem a silly or dangerous thing to do, but it is, finally, a lovely cut-as is a Spanish-language version of Besame Mucho. The album's title song, Bacharach-David's The Look of Love, could be a crossover hit without really trying.
Krall has always been stylish, but as an interpreter, she's never been as substantial as she is here. Subsequent to their collaboration in the studio, Ogerman said of her work: "She's acting the words great, the way Sinatra did." It's always risky to put comparisons like that on the record. But then, he knew what he had on the disc. By the way, Ogerman's favorite orchestrator has long been Nelson Riddle.