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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015