Sex, Smoke and Shyness

When Diana Krall came to Los Angeles from Canada in the early 1980s, she was a shy, somewhat nervous kid with a tremendous ability for stride piano. When she performs this week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center—and later this month attends the Grammy Awards—she returns as one of jazz's biggest celebrities.

Krall has made a bit of jazz history with her Album of the Year nomination for When I Look in Your Eyes. The Grammy voters, always more partial to commercial than artistic success, haven't seen fit to nominate a jazz album in this category since the early '60s, unless you count Natalie Cole's bit of pop nostalgia Unforgettable in 1991 (and the great singers Krall cites as influences—Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, Shirley Horn—were never able to break out of the jazz categories). Krall's rise on the pop charts and her success with a new generation of jazz-vocal fans is an indication there might be hope for the art form in the 21st century after all.

But her commercial success can't be entirely attributed to her considerable musical talents. With her platinum good looks, Krall is a marketer's dream, and her albums have been splashed with glamour-girl photography. Throw in Melrose Place appearances, sexy magazine spreads and Tonight Show dates, and it's no wonder that the singer/pianist has managed to attract a sizable, enthusiastic and—compared with the jazz audience at large—younger following.

Watching her perform, though, you discover that Krall, contrary to the marketing, is no siren. More Doris Day than Mae West, she looks vulnerable, shy and a bit uneasy as she sits at the piano bench, often squinting at the stage lights. She rarely smiles as she plays, and then it's usually to acknowledge some clever musical turn from her accompanying musicians, or an especially hearty ovation.

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"She's always been that way, a little shy and nervous," says pianist, vocalist and OC resident Peggy Duquesnel. Duquesnel was introduced to Krall when she first came south by pianist/ arranger/conductor Alan Broadbent. Krall would sub for Duquesnel at her regular gig at the former Registry Hotel near John Wayne Airport. "But Diana also has this tremendous confidence in her abilities. That's been the source of her success."

Krall came to Southern California at the urging of bassist Ray Brown, drummer Jeff Hamilton and others who had heard her perform in Vancouver, British Columbia. Here, she studied principally with the late pianist and musicologist Jimmie Rowles as well as with Broadbent, who recently conducted orchestras at Krall's concerts in Toronto and Montreal.

"I guess she was interested in the Lennie Tristano approach," says Broadbent, "and what I could teach her about it. When she first started, she was a fantastic, dyed-in-the-wool stride player. She could play anything in stride, up-tempo pieces, everything."

While Krall's piano playing, now decidedly un-stride-like, has taken a back seat to her singing, it's still a large part of her craft. In a previous interview, she talked about the inspiration she got from Nat "King" Cole. "He was like two people performing, a pianist and a singer," she said. "I wanted to be able to do that." Now, in her own way, she can.

The lush Johnny Mandel arrangements on When I Look in Your Eyes seem to have more in common with Natalie than Nat Cole. But Krall's ability to carry a song into the imagination makes even tired numbers associated with great singers of the past carry new meaning. Witness her languid rendition of the Sinatra swinger "I've Got You Under My Skin" —her voice has all the sexy sophistication that the fashion-model photos promise: warm, occasionally smoky and capable of the most delicate dynamics. Forget the marketing blitz: the real Diana Krall is most visible when your eyes are closed and your ears are open.

Diana Krall performs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri., 8 p.m. $36-$52.

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