Grammy Preview 2000: The Jazz Zinger Grammy has infamously thrown its share of curves in the Album of the Year category. (Remember the curious '99 nod for Garbage?) This year, slugging it out with odd

(Entertainment Weekly 2-18-00)

If you ask me about being a blond, I'll kill you." Diana Krall shoots me a look, and fortunately, only a look. The celebrated singer-pianist has just been through a morning of TV interviews in her Beverly Hills hotel, none focused on jazz theory.

Normally, those who croon "I've Got You Under My Skin" don't stand a ghost of a chance with Grammy, but her '99 release, When I Look in Your Eyes, has gotten new life via an unexpected nomination for Album of the Year. Invariably, interviewers move beyond wanting to know how it feels to have the honor of competing against the Backstreet Boys (the showdown will be broadcast Feb. 23), and on to the subject of Krall's beauty.

"You have this very glamorous image..." begins one young female interrogator. "And some people might look at your album covers and wonder whether the record company is exploiting you.... It's like, here's this blond..."

Krall starts reeling off her rote response. "I always tell people, the more time we talk about that, the less time there is to talk about music." She explains how she's in control of her own photo sessions, and so on. But then she almost loses her cool. Does her label exploit her image? "Of course they do!

They'd be idiots if they didn't! I understand [the question], but it pisses me off. It's very important that people understand that I'm not just propped up here and told what to do. I am an artist, and I am also a woman who loves to dress up and be a girl....Plus, I don't think that I'm that big a deal anyway. I'm not Claudia Schiffer. I do what I can."

Friendly laughs are exchanged, and when the camera's off, Krall--a diva by profession only--makes sure the interviewer wasn't offended by her slight show of pique. "Did you hear me swear in there?" she asks her publicist afterward, a little embarrassed--and still a little miffed. "I'm blond, it's a wonder my brains don't fall out of my head!" Then comes the aforementioned threat on my life.

Fair hair aside, it is fair to wonder if someone coming along who's easy on the eyes as well as ears ain't bad for jazz and the classic American popular song--art forms historically rife with sex appeal, which, in recent years, have gotten more press on the obit page than through profiles of rising hotties. It's been said that the clingy dress Krall wore as a Grammy performer two years ago did more for rekindling interest in jazz than a decade's worth of Duke and Miles reissues. But never mind how the new audience gets in the door; the rearranged old standards they're exposed to become playful, vibrant, emotionally renewed, and maybe even just a little sensual in this 35-year-old thrush's hands.

"Sex symbol?" repeats Krall, chowing down on halibut in the hotel bar after the TV crews are gone. "Oh my God! 'Uh, Mom...' " She mimes phoning the folks back in Nanaimo, Canada, having to explain this embarrassing notion. Not that she's ready to completely disavow it. "The women that I admire are like Kim Novak, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall--strong women who are very sexy. I never try to be. But I think I'm a very passionate"--long pause--"sexual person. But it should be a quiet thing."

Pianissimo, not fortissimo, is her forte. Her accomplished ivory tickling is simple and elegant. Krall's accountant dad, schoolteacher mom, and ex-Canadian Mountie younger sister all play, too; her mother would lead family sing-alongs of standards and hymns every Sunday night at Grandma's. Never imagining she'd be known as a vocal stylist--never singing in public before age 20, in fact--Diana pursued formal piano training and eventually studied under jazz legend Jimmy Rowles. Now, like Nat King Cole, she's in danger of having her piano prowess eclipsed by her voice, which reviewers typically call "'smoky, honey-scotch,' all that stuff--they've gotta write something," she shrugs.

She wasn't always in touch with her inner smokiness. Listen to her first two, early-'90s albums, and it's almost painful hearing her try to... "Belt?" she interrupts. "Yeah, it's terrible. I was trying to be Sarah Vaughan. That's youth, though. I'm not a very powerful singer. What's Martin Short's line, when he's doing the synchronized-swimmer routine? 'I'm not a strong swimmer.' Ha-ha! I don't have a belting voice. That's why I took away drums, too, to be able to get really quiet."

She ditched 'em on her third album, the 1996 Cole tribute All for You, the LP that found her really blossoming as a singer. As she's grown more confident in her lower, more smoldering registers, the percussion got taken off probation. "Now, with the right drums, I'm very quiet."

She's no femme fatale, despite the noir look of a few album covers and her intention to take out anyone brandishing the B-word. At home, in Manhattan, she's a social animal; back in her native Canada, she's a sporty one, having indulged in bungee jumping, rock climbing, and other digit-endangering pursuits. If some of her interviewers don't know what to make of this self-avowed jock's occasional glamour, it's understandable: The last time this vein of popular song produced a looker of a "girl singer" who captured the public imagination was probably the 1950s heyday of Rosemary Clooney.

"She's better than I was," insists Clooney, who's practically adopted Krall since they met a year ago. "I think she is of the caliber of Ella and Peggy Lee. And she's a double threat, because she has what none of us did, being a brilliant pianist, too." If Krall wins the Grammy, credit Clooney, who's on a one-woman voter-calling campaign.

Krall's fifth album got that nod thanks to a NARAS "blue ribbon" nominating committee, which went ape over When I Look... in a closed listening session. Some wags assume Krall inherited the token "credibility slot" recently granted to alterna-rockers like Beck. But "Santana is darned credible," she argues. "And who am I to say that this band over here is not as serious as I am? Because if you're honest about the music and love it and doing it for the right reasons, not rewards, then you're doing it for the sake of the music." The Backstreet Boys, in a nutshell!

But seriously, don't suggest that Grammy accolades--or gold-selling status, exceedingly rare among her peers--make her a genre standard-bearer. "I'm not the poster girl for jazz. That's a lot of responsibility on one person. And there are great singers that are more 'jazz singer' than I am--Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson, Vanessa Rubin, Dianne Reeves."

Yet, asked why she never covers the contemporary writers she loves, like Tom Waits and pal Elton John, Krall falls back on responsibility after all, erring on the side of the classics. "In my eyes, the music isn't retro. It's still the same story--'the fight for love and glory'.... You don't have to think back to World War II.... I think it's important to interpret the great songwriters, just like the great plays, as if they were Death of a Salesman.

"Gershwin, Porter, Berlin--these songs have been stretched, pulled, taken apart, put back together again, and had bebop invented over them. I'm asked all the time, 'Why don't you write your own tunes?' Well, you don't see Cole Porter up there blowing saxophone. Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen were genius songwriters who got Frank Sinatra to interpret their music. You don't ask every actor why they're not writing their own plays."

Nor would you tell a great baseball player he ought to invent a whole new game, I suggest.

"That's a good way to put it. 'You're playing baseball--that's old! Play something new!' I might use that, if you don't mind," she says. Mind? Would Jimmy Van Heusen mind? Once an interpreter, always an interpreter.

Copyright 2000 Time Inc.