Jazz Festival preview: Meanwhile, in Tin Pan Alley ...

Call it retro, call it postmodern - call it anything you like in fact - but contemporary jazz isn't really contemporary any more. Instead, it's mostly hurtling ever backwards in a kind of fast-rewind through the styles of the last five decades. For a new artist who wants to be successful, a refuge offered by the past - in, say ,the musically dexterous world of post-war small-group swing a la Nat "King" Cole - may therefore seem as good a place as any to pitch up. This process partly explains the incredible success of the Canadian pianist and singer Diana Krall - the biggest new name in jazz - who headlines an Oris London Jazz Festival concert at the Barbican on Thursday. But Krall isn't just a symptom of some cultural malaise: she's really, really, good. Her voice is a dream of close-miked, breathy expressiveness, her piano playing swings like the clappers, and she has impeccable jazz credentials. But why does she have to sound like 1952?

It may well be that there isn't much choice. The modernist line that stretched from Coleman Hawkins, through to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and on to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, along with the seemingly boundless formal experimentation that accompanied it, ran out years ago. Free improvisation - jazz's version of the end of history - is now 40 years old. Even in the margins of the avant-garde, the trend is towards crossovers with contemporary classical music, as if jazz in itself is no longer sustainable. The retro aesthetic is also more complicated than it first appears, and worthy of several Cultural Studies dissertations. All over America, young people are now dancing to old swing records and to new bands who copy the repertoire, in a strange movement that somehow mixes the subculture of serious piercings and tattoos with Glenn Miller and the Lindy Hop.

Diana Krall's albums for the Impulse label regularly top the jazz charts, and in the US she actually gets played on the radio, where the dominant "Smooth Jazz" format is so anodyne that it makes even the very mellow Krall sound a little spiky. In the UK Krall has moved from support slots, to headliner at Ronnie Scott's, to a main concert attraction, in little more than two years. And while her winning style may be stuck in the groove cut by the "King" Cole Trio way back when, it works. So why fix it?

"I don't really like categories, but I'm coming out of a traditional approach," says Krall, when I talk to her by telephone at her family's home in Vancouver. "I'd prefer to call it acoustic jazz, but I keep doing different things. For instance I've just finished recording on a Christmas album with Celine Dion, and also recorded with the Chieftains. I'm trying to come from the jazz tradition, but that doesn't mean that it's retro."

Diana Krall, who will be 34 next week, insists that her chosen style derives quite naturally from her family background in British Columbia. "I grew up listening to everything from Puccini to George Formby," she says. "My dad collects old 78s and cylinder recordings and I heard a lot of music in the house, from Fats Waller and Connie Boswell to Peter Frampton and Elton John. It was eclectic, but I always gravitated to jazz. I had a band director at school who turned me on to Charlie Parker and Bill Evans, and that was it."

Her repertoire focuses on "standards", the Tin Pan Alley songs that have fed jazz for much of this century, and whose vocal traditions were defined by singers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It's a hard act to follow, and one that most female vocalists these days fail to live up to. "I don't think I make the songs new," KralI says hesitantly, when asked to account for the way she approaches standards. "I don't really know what to do with them, but I just find things in the lyrics that make sense to me as a young woman, and I try to interpret their areas of experience. They've been interpreted by jazz musicians as well as vocalists, and harmonically they're great blowing vehicles. Lyrically, it's like interpreting a play. I can feel a story in it, and there's a lot of theatre involved."

The sense of theatre came across in her Ronnie Scott's season earlier this year. Krall has a modest but commanding presence, and she talks to the audience between tunes with an easy intimacy that very few others could carry off, even in a context as traditionally confessional as that of the female jazz singer. At some point during each set, Krall sits demurely at the keyboard and lets the musicians of her trio have a rest while she takes on a solo. She doesn't have a big voice, and she never tries to stretch it by scatting or forcing vocal effects. Instead, she leans in to within kissing distance of the mike and whispers the typically lovelorn lyric as confidentially as if she were talking on the phone to her best friend. Her warm, seductively accented intonation does the rest. The emotion in the lyrics bubbles up like spring water.

It may not be the future of jazz. But then again, what is, other than some other version of the past? As Diana Krall slow-burns her way through "You're Getting to be a Habit with Me", and the consoling, flickering- fireside heat of her voice is brought into sharp contrast with the rather icy eroticism of her cool looks and presentation, postmodernism almost begins to seem like a good thing.

Diana Krall Trio with Fred Hersch: Barbican Centre, EC2 (0171 638 8891), Thursday.

The Oris London Jazz Festival continues to Sunday 15 November; see Critics Choice, page 15, for next week's other highlights.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable