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Notorious S.W.F.

Don't Hate Diana Krall and Jane Monheit Because They're Beautiful

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/6/2002

When jazz musicians and critics argue that jazz should be considered "America's classical music," they assume they're doing themselves a favor. But when they begin to apply art-music standards--which favor technique over feeling, tradition over experimentation, sophistication over populism--they deny much of what is best about jazz.

This ivory-tower attitude has caused the jazz establishment to misunderstand two of its biggest young stars, Diana Krall (who comes to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall April 9) and Jane Monheit (who performs at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium March 7). If you judge these singers by the classical standards of technique, they obviously fall short. They lack the big sound, piercing tone, bull's-eye pitch, and interval-leaping agility of vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald or Maria Callas, Ann Hampton Callaway or Cecilia Bartoli.

But if you judge Krall and Monheit by pop standards--the ability to create a vivid personality and connect emotionally with a listener--they are two of the most exciting singers of their generation. They both have soft, rounded voices that employ the whisper of intimacy, the purr of seduction, and the sigh of confession to create the illusion that they are sitting on the same sofa as the listener. They have more in common with Dionne Warwick and Rickie Lee Jones than with Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. And yet, Krall and Monheit are genuine jazz singers. They sing jazz standards, they hire jazz sidemen, they betray a sure grasp of swing, and they keep changing the melody.

So why did The Atlanta Journal-Constitution attack Monheit for "her off-hand phrasing, slurred diction and inappropriate rhythm and blues inflection"? Why did The New York Times complain that Krall "always erred on the side of caution"? Why did JazzTimes slam both, the former for her "dearth of harmonic understanding" and "lack of improvisational savvy," the latter for "sluggish" timing?

Part of the resistance stems from a natural--and not always unfounded--skepticism about good-looking performers. One always has to wonder if such artists are famous for their talent or for their photogenic features. Krall, with her full lips, long blond hair, and even longer legs, and Monheit, with her pixieish, heart-shaped face framed by a thick mane of brown curls, are both stunning women. Would their music be as beguiling if they looked like Jill Scott or Janis Joplin?

Yes. Krall's latest album, The Look of Love (Universal/Verve), is largely devoted to songs by George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, and Hoagy Carmichael that have been done a million times before. But Krall brings something new to these tunes--and not by adding notes, as jazz singers usually do, but by subtracting them. When she sings Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well," her delivery is filled with pauses that allow the implications of a recent breakup to sink in. The notes that she does articulate do not sprawl in a puddle of self-pity; they're tightly contained, as if her sad whisper was held in place by a steely core of anger.

A similar hint of danger underlies most of Krall's purring vocals. She sings Burt Bacharach's "The Look of Love" with a gleam of lust, as if she were less interested in following the object of her gaze up the wedding aisle than in leading him to bed.

Krall not only brings out the double-entendre possibilities of "Dancing in the Dark," but also implies that her interest in the man may wane when the dance is over. This double-edged quality in her vocals--a generous offer of romance contradicted by an unapologetic emphasis on her own desires--prevents her from ever becoming coy or cloying.

The understated, Nelson Riddle-like string charts for these songs were arranged by Claus Ogerman, the veteran who worked with Frank Sinatra and, more pertinently, Joao Gilberto. Krall gives many of these songs a strong bossa-nova flavor, which makes sense. Brazilian music is all about light vocals skidding breezily over rippling rhythms, the frothy surface belying the sardonic undertow, and that's just what this blond Canadian chanteuse is up to.

If Krall brings a knowing maturity to her breathy minimalism, Monheit's latest album, Come Dream with Me (N2K Encoded Music), captures the transition from girlish innocence to womanly desire, that brief moment when romance seems an Eden unspoiled by disappointments and complications. With her small, high-pitched soprano and pearly tone, she evokes that adolescent optimism buried somewhere within all of us.

Because Monheit is so restrained in her phrasing--paring away show-offish embellishments and leaving breathing space between lines--that idealism seems unforced and unfeigned. Working with similarly restrained jazz pros like pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, she distills standards by Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Sammy Fain down to their barest, almost naked essentials.

The album opens with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," an over-the-top show-stopper for divas from Judy Garland to Patti LaBelle. Monheit turns it inside out, transforming it into a dreamer's wistful confession, an interpretation more in keeping with the lyrics. And when the 24-year-old singer, now 24, sings "Blame It on My Youth," she delivers it with a disarming insouciance that implies that youth is forever blameless.

I don't mean to imply that Krall and Monheit are beyond criticism. As enchanting and innovative as their minimalism is, they're both too cautious for their own good. They could push their leisurely, whispery deliveries even further, building tension against the rhythm section and then releasing that tension with a jump in dynamics. As much as they alter melodies with their slurring, sliding improvisations, they could take much greater risks.

And they could be far more adventurous in their repertoire. The most interesting songs on Monheit's new album are her versions of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" (a song Krall has sung on television and stage but not on disc) and Bread's "If." Krall has had great success tackling songs associated with the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, and Mose Allison. These post-Elvis pop songs strip away the slick urbanity of the pre-Elvis American Songbook and reveal a down-to-earth awkwardness that these confessional singers are well equipped to exploit.

Their role model should be Cassandra Wilson, the bold risk-taker who has completely redefined jazz singing over the past 15 years. On her forthcoming Belly in the Sun (Blue Note), Wilson takes the tentative experiments of Krall and Monheit--the drawn-out phrasing, the softened tone, the bossa nova arrangements, the modern repertoire--and pushes them into new, untouched territory. If they're smart, Krall and Monheit will follow Wilson's lead.

Jane Monheit performs at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium in Towson March 7 with Slim Man. For tickets and information, contact Ticketmaster at (410) 481-7328 or www.ticketmaster.com. Diana Krall comes to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall April 9. Call (410) 783-8000 or visit www.baltimoresymphony.org for tickets and information.

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