By Mike Zwerin
Diana Krall has had increasing success, she sings better and better, she looks better and better, she married Elvis Costello - you would think that she has enough control of her own career by now not to have to release an album called “Christmas Songs" (Verve).
It is a safe bet that there was a certain amount of pressure from producers and/or the record company. It does not seem likely that somebody who has so consistently demonstrated her sophisticated taste has been just dying to interpret kitschy good-cheer classics such as “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," “Jingle Bells," and “White Christmas." Either way, it was a bad idea.
Krall has one of the best and most convincing female vocal instruments of the last decade or so, and it used to be considered good news that she was also popular. Recording new versions of Christmas songs can be considered a metaphor for the triumph of consumerism. On her album cover, Krall, dressed in designer green, resembles a reclining Christmas tree with great legs. This is product only, made only for money.
Making an album of Christmas songs has become something of a joke - a money-grubbing caper serious musicians would sign on for only if everything else failed (and even then…). When Krall stakes her credibility on these banal clichés, it makes it harder to believe anything else she does. It’s something like a good movie with too many explosions.
Her control, texture, time, and believability can remind you of Frank Sinatra - her chops are that good. Speaking of which, there is also an album, first released in 1987, called “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra" (Capitol) on the crowded holiday market. With arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, it is rare to have such a combination of talent on a popular music record. So how do you account for the bad taste, including a cornball version of “Adeste Fideles," with fiddles, a harp, and a female choir? This one reminds me of Marlon Brando wearing a dress. At least Sinatra had the good taste to be schmaltzy.
It is almost 20 years later now. Enough already. The saddest thing about Krall’s album is how much creativity she invests in it. The arrangements are sophisticated, and impeccably interpreted and recorded, and her voice, her delivery, and her sense of time are, as usual, above reproach. It sounds like she really means every note and syllable. Misplaced sincerity, as Sinatra used to say about a friend-in-need, is a drag.
Whether the performances are better or worse than previous versions of this material is totally beside the point by now. Christmas songs have become trite up front, even offensive. Try to make them swing, and they will kill swing itself. The once clean neighborhood is polluted. Good taste is no longer part of the equation. The lineage they represent is defunct.
While on the subject of music for the holidays, the new album by the Brad Mehldau trio, “Day Is Done" (Nonesuch), is a refined gift for someone you love and respect. The subject matter - including Burt Bachrach’s “Alfie," Lennon and McCartney’s “Martha My Dear," and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" - is anything but defunct. “Day Is Done" is a poster for good taste, and a testimonial to the grace of contemporary improvised music.