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
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power