What happens to a jazz singer when she runs out of songbook?
Where to turn when the standards seem exactly that, and the glow
fades from the old reliable torch songs?
Diana Krall, one of the most successful jazz singer-pianists of her
generation, experienced ennui with the repertoire, and decided to grow
On The Girl in the Other Room (Verve, **1/2 out of four
stars), which arrives in stores today, the 39-year-old native of
British Columbia leaves behind the show tunes and Tin Pan Alley
evergreens that have been sung by every aspiring jazz chanteuse since
In their place, Krall offers six songs she cocreated with her new
husband, the protean pop tunesmith Elvis Costello. The pieces send
Krall into shadowy film noir, the kind of stuff you'd hear in a
rundown, slightly sinister, Coen brothers piano bar. They require her
to sing sprawling, Sondheim-style tales, about love heists in progress
and existential quandaries. And they find her brooding about loss in
the forthright, confessional language of singer-songwriterdom.
It's the first such experiment in Krall's career, and one of the
rare instances when an established jazz singer has tried to transition
from interpreter to originator. It's bold, because in current jazz,
singers thrive when they stick to the canon, and suffer at the box
office when they experiment.
Many in Krall's audience come to hear what she does with even the
most worn-out standards. The familiarity of the songs helps forge a
connection, and though she might eventually take "The Shadow of Your
Smile" down streets it's never traveled, at least the starting point is
a known entity.
There's little of that jazz-and-cocktails comfort zone on Other
Krall sings in front of her customary small ensemble, and surrounds
her vocals with the elegant tinkling-piano accompaniments and gently
speared guitar chords of classic torch. The environment is understated
and placid, and at times seems intentionally smooth - as if Krall was
using the default "jazz" sound to soften her downright challenging
melodies. You have to listen to these songs a few times to discern,
much less appreciate, their melodic contours.
The most straightforward theme is the title track, a broken-tempo
waltz that follows a girl caught up in romantic obsession. Krall and
Costello leave lots of open spaces in the story: Each verse ends with a
single line of lyric, and an image that hangs poignantly in the air, in
much the way the best phrases on Costello's 2003 orchestral-pop North
Because there's no clear refrain, or even a summary clincher, the
task of filling in the blanks falls to Krall's vocal. She rises to the
challenge by singing wearily, supplying a regret that's only hinted at
in the text. Her coy restraint, and her casually improvised asides, are
what make the piece riveting.
Costello wrote the lyrics, sometimes from lists of images and notes
Krall gave him, and on the brooding "Abandoned Masquerade," he
transformed those raw ideas into an unmistakable expression of personal
resolve. As is his wont, he occasionally tells several stories at once.
On "I've Changed My Address," the account of long-gone love is
underscored by a tale about a different type of regret, at how the club
where Krall got her start is now a sports bar.
It's an impressive compositional trick - a contrast between modern
malaise and openly sentimental melodrama - and it gives "Address" a
dimension missing from some jazz standards.
Not all the originals are as effective.
"Departure Bay" is a maudlin remembrance of Krall's mother, whose
death after a battle with cancer was one catalyst for Krall's new
direction. "Narrow Daylight," while nicely sung, sits in the same
ponderous ballad tempo that predominates here, and its melody wanders,
Perhaps more troubling is that Krall doesn't go all the way and
commit herself fully to original songs. Her ambitious originals sit
next to several pleasant, almost lightweight, treatments of rock-era
Krall's version of Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow" follows the original
a little too closely. "Temptation" takes Tom Waits' gutter allure to
heights of prissiness the author probably never imagined. And though
Krall tramples the Bonnie Raitt hit "Love Me Like a Man," she atones at
the piano when, in an inspired coda, she adds a Count Basie shout
Then there's Costello's "Almost Blue," a song that's been covered by
singers from all corners of popular music.
This could have been another perfunctory bit of business, but Krall
sings it with a glassy-eyed grace. She sounds deflated, as if she's
been through the mill and can no longer soldier on with a stoic face.
The vocal performance unfolds word by disillusioned word, and just when
Krall sounds as if she's given up, she drops the faintest hint of "My
Funny Valentine" into the music.
In that moment, the guiding spirit of the project becomes clear, and
Krall's transition to the "other room" seems like a smart, and
hopefully long-term, move. There she is, decorating a song written in
the '80s with a Rodgers and Hart melody from the '40s, singing about
the hurts and ambiguities of romance in a way that's profoundly modern
- and still somehow timeless.