A few years ago, Gene Lees and I fell into serious agreement. It happened in one of our long talks over a glass of wine, or two, at the big table just off the kitchen in his and Janet’s house in Ojai. We were kicking around the peculiar effect that popular acceptance of an artist often has on the perception of critics and fellow musicians. We discussed the Modern Jazz Quartet, Cannonball Adderley, the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Diana Krall, all of whom during their struggle upward were lauded by writers and colleagues.
In each instance, when the musician began selling significant numbers of records and moved from subsistence work in clubs into the remunerative realm of the concert circuit, reviewers who wrote praise the year before suddenly detected compromised artistic standards. Among envious musicians, the logic seemed to go like this: if I haven’t made it big and those people have, they must have sold out.
Diana Krall was the most recent example. She had rather quickly gone from moderate recognition to stardom. The predictable post-success sniping was underway, but Lees and I thought that her playing put her high in the second tier of current jazz pianists and that she might someday edge into the first rank. We agreed that her singing, always good, had improved in intonation, time feeling and maturity of expression. Attractiveness and the naturalness of her stage presence were adjuncts to her popularity, we said, not the cause of it. Salud! Then we probably went on to argue about something.
Not long after that, Gene met Ms. Krall and wrote about her in 1999 for Jazz Times. The piece was a character study. It was built on their conversations, the quotes arranged and set in the text in that incomparable Lees way. He makes the reader an eavesdropper, a technique light years beyond substituting transcribed verbatim interviews for writing. The narrative sections were straightforward, like this one:
She has a strong face, and when the stage lights hit it, it radiated, looking like a flower above her black pantsuit. She is an outstanding pianist. (Even if she grouses about what she considers a limited technique; but compared to what, Art Tatum?) She sits slightly sideways at the keyboard, to face the audience, as Nat Cole used to do; maybe she picked it up from his movies and TV shows. Again she got a standing ovation. Whether she likes it or not, she is the glamour girl of jazz. I just hope her singing success doesn’t take her away from the piano, as it did Nat Cole.
It hasn’t. To read the entire article, go here.
I thought about that conversation and that article the other day when one of those Jazz On The Tube e-mail links showed up. It turned out to be to a section of Ms. Krall’s 2001 Live in Paris DVD, which I had never seen. She is with a large orchestra conducted by Alan Broadbent. John Clayton is the bassist, Jeff Hamilton the drummer, Anthony Wilson her regular guitarist, and we get a couple of glimpses of the marvelous John Pisano on acoustic guitar. If this is selling out, I’ll take it.