Merging the Great American Songbook, bluesy bits and works from serious contempo modern rockers, Diana Krall continues to shed a portion of her jazz skin without exposing a fully formed concept underneath. Her musical world is neither fish nor fowl — is she rethinking pop’s relationship with jazz, or vice versa — and she has not yet found a distinct interpretive voice; Krall delivers lyrics as the songs’ creators did. At best, she exposes works of Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Chris Smither, Mose Allison and husband Elvis Costello to a new crowd.
Krall, assuming she’s following her heart and not commercial instincts that suggest she distance herself from decades-old warhorses, is gently leaning the genre against a pop gate and seeing if it swings. At best, she does so without compromising her jazz side — at the Greek, her three backing musicians are all jazz stalwarts and the piano, bass and guitar solos are all out of that canon. No matter how far she wades into the pop-rock stream, on record or in concert, there’s always a solo or a song to reinforce the jazz roots.
The Krall-Costello romance has produced two vastly different works. Costello released “North,” a drab bit of melancholia loaded with thoughtful romance and a rare bit of humor. Krall’s “Girl in the Other Room” is less sophisticated but an easier listen, even if their collaborations bear the Costello stamp in melody and sentiment. Album has sold about 540,000 copies, a rarity in the jazz world.
First of two nearly sold-out nights at the Greek featured a good half of the new album’s dozen songs, a delightful twist on the Fats Domino hit “I’m Walkin'” and a pair of standards (“All or Nothing,” “Let’s Face the Music”).
Interaction among the quartet was tight as a drum, with Krall balancing gentle linear solos with some funky chord banging a la Les McCann. Guitarist Anthony Wilson provided rapidly voiced counterpoints; bassist Robert Hurst went beyond swinging accompaniment and added interpretive touches to numbers such as Mitchell’s “Black Crow” and the Mitchell-inspired “I’m Coming Through,” one of the Costello-Krall collaborations.
Disturbingly, though, Krall positioned herself at the piano with her back to the guitarist, the drummer and half the audience. It reinforced the idea that this was an overly rehearsed show and not one based on impulse and reaction, as the best jazz shows are. It did play into her demeanor, cold and stiff, and her comments to the audience, which were often sarcastic and never revealing.
In terms of musical reproduction, the Greek was a perfect setting for Krall, whose local perfs have mostly been Catalina Bar & Grill or the Hollywood Bowl.
However, the stage dwarfed opener Ollabelle, a collective of New Yorkers embracing blues gospel numbers from the 1920s and ’30s. Refreshing as it is to hear numbers written and inspired by the great gospel-blues guitarist of the ’20s, Blind Willie Johnson, the DMZ/Columbia Records act needs the intimacy of a club to be effective. Fortunately, the sextet’s sincerity is never in doubt.
Krall will perform Aug. 24 at Gotham’s Radio City Music Hall before launching a European tour in mid-September that runs through early December.
Ollabelle performs Aug. 4 at New York’s South Street Seaport and Sept. 24 at the Mercury Lounge.