Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

In all the fuss about the new wave of singers with whom the word "jazz" is often inaccurately associated - the term used so wantonly that all it signifies is something deemed to be vaguely "cool" - it seems to have been forgotten that the person who paved the way was Diana Krall. It was she who convinced the recording industry that it was possible for the word jazz to be associated with the tinkling of cash registers - quite an achievement when one considers the long, slow sell of most jazz albums.

She, however, is now taking a step away from jazz, as shown by her latest album, The Girl in the Other Room, which is high on tunes written by Krall and her new husband, Elvis Costello, short on standards, and even includes a Joni Mitchell number. It doesn't play to her strengths.

A recent performance for Radio 2 (which will be broadcast next month) confirms that she is at her best in snappy, up-tempo tunes like "Devil May Care", on which both her voice and her piano-playing are tremendous. The verve she brings to it makes her version possibly the best I've heard. She also reveals a great affinity for the blues, her hands producing shouting, ranting lines on "Love Me Like a Man" and oiling up a deliciously sleazy "Stop This World" by Mose Allison.

But she also has a weakness for a slow tempo, and I don't mean just breaking up the set with a ballad (or bad salad, as musicians put it). Try taking the notoriously slow "Love Letters" at slow pace, and then slow it down as far as you can without actually stopping, and you may get close to the soporific treacle for which Krall has a disastrous fondness. "Cry Me a River" is so overly languorous and heavy that one feels how one imagines Mrs Sting might after 11 hours of Tantric sex: "It's very nice, dear, but can't you just get on with it?"

The worry with the new, non-jazz material Krall's writing and choosing is that none of it is likely to get the pulse racing either. They're not bad tunes, but they're not exactly memorable, and some of them are pretty miserable, too. She has every right to be miserable if she wants to, but it's not much fun for the rest of us, and if her late, lamented mentor, the great double-bassist Ray Brown, were still around, I don't think he would have been that thrilled either. A little more ring-a-ding-ding, as the Rat Pack would have put it, is in order.

Something else that could often do with a bit more pizzazz is Scandinavian jazz, which has recently been in vogue. Much of it is beautiful and arresting but it's unlikely to produce much in the way of belly laughs.

An exception to this is Nils Landgren, a very fine trombonist who is under the misapprehension that he is an equally talented singer. I suspect that the latest project with his Funk Unit band is not an attempt at humour, but "Funky Abba", an album consisting entirely of Abba songs played by Landgren's acid jazz/funk band with various guest singers, cannot fail to amuse at least a little. Its release next month is timely as it was 30 years ago that "Waterloo" won the Eurovision Song Contest, and over here we've just had the 5th anniversary of Mamma Mia, the London musical about the band. Landgren also played on the original recording of "Voulez-Vous", and it was he who approached Benny Andersson asking for his blessing to make "Funky Abba". "Is that possible?" asked Benny. "I think yes," replied Nils, and as he says in the liner notes: "If we succeeded to make them funky, it's up to you friends out there to decide."

The surprise is how well so much of it works. Many of the verses are replaced by rap lines, most startlingly on "Knowing me, knowing you", which after a slowed-down brass intro goes straight into some very unSwedish-sounding dude called Magnum Coltrane Price rapping "I used to know you, you used to know me". (Note from Nils: "MCP, without you no funk in the trunk".) A brave attempt at reinventing "Dancing Queen" as a medium slow soul smoocher fails completely, as it must; nothing can match those energetic first few bars of a tune that has swept the reluctant and the weary back on to the dance floor from the moment it was first released.

Landgren's band is smooth and sinuous and I imagine an evening with this unlikely combination would be highly entertaining - especially if, as on the album, Mr Benny himself turns up as a "very special guest". And I think it's safe to say we'd be laughing with Landgren as well as at him.