Three years ago, Diana Krall was comfortably ensconced in the intimate confines of Manhattan’s Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel playing to an affectionate audience of 45. Now, with a best jazz album Grammy in her pocket for Verve CD “When I Look in Your Eyes” –plus, rare for a jazz artist, a nom for the best album of the year — she’s touring the country’s major concert halls and facing nightly audiences of more than 2,000. Never mind that half the tunes in her program are rooted in the flirty ’30s, or that she’s drop-dead gorgeous; Krall’s purring sensuality as a vocalist and her airy and flavorful jazz piano is a captivating and winning combination.
With cool and colorful phrasing and an obvious loving dedication to the material, Krall amazingly manages to retain the intimacy of a small club in the spacious concert hall. If not a jazz singer in the sense of Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, she boasts an extraordinary innately hip quality and a knowing awareness of song and interpretation. There’s an infectious raspy little crack in her voice that occasionally surfaces, and it flavors her singing with a kind of playful flirtatiousness.
Krall’s major influence is the Nat “King” Cole Trio’s body of work from the mid-’40s, and it’s reflected in her straightforward, no-nonsense take on “I’ll String Along With You,” a love song of resignation. The lady invests Harry Warren’s ardent, yet tilted romantic confession “But I’m Sure You’ll Do Until One Comes Along” with cunning and breathy purity.
The singer keeps chatter to a minimum — some droll recollections of watching old films with her dad and discovering Peggy Lee’s “I Don’t Know Enough About You” in “Pete Kelly’s Blues.” She adds an affectionate appreciation of the late pianist-composer Jimmy Rowles, a teacher and friend who suggested she do “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).” Indeed, she does the tune — a 1935 selection that originated in a Princeton U. Triangle Club revue — with rushed vocal phrasing and a rich and imaginative chordal piano solo.
With Sinatra signature “All or Nothing at All,” Krall doesn’t repeat her CD take. She’s now doing the tune with a gutsy growl and invests the instrumental interlude with cunning quick changes of tempo.
In another nod to Ol’ Blue Eyes, the blonde diva recalls listening to “Sinatra at the Sands” for the first time as a teenager and discovering one of the most enduring of Cole Porter confessional love songs. A subtle and evocative reading of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — sans piano accompaniment on the first chorus — defined the lessons learned from the singer and the song.
Turning to the blues, Krall got mean and low down with Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind,” a slinky take from her Impulse “Love Scenes” CD. The thrush also scored with Bob Dorough’s “Devil May Care,” a fanciful and brightly swinging throw-caution-to-the-wind declaration.
At encore time, fans in the capacity audience cried out for familiar material from Krall’s award-winning CDs, and she accommodated with “Peel Me a Grape,” a fanciful and sexually amusing invitation penned by jazz humorist Dave Frishberg. The diva’s 90-minute turn at Jersey’s opulent 3-year-old concert hall seemed all too brief, but with the solid accompaniment of her backup trio, she redefined her opening musical statement, “I Love Being Here With You.”
Krall, who also nabbed the title of female vocalist of the year in a Down Beat magazine poll, follows her Newark engagement with Garden State gigs at John Harms Center for the Performing Arts in Englewood (Friday) and Princeton’s McCarter Theater (Saturday).