Diana Krall is a singer-keyboardist out of the Nat (King) Cole tradition, a performer exceptionally talented in both pursuits. And, again like Cole, her singing will probably overshadow her skills at the piano as her career progresses.
Krall's first night of a three-night stand at the Jazz Bakery on Tuesday spotlighted this duality as she accompanied herself with help from bassist John Webber and drummer Clarence Penn. As she sang, the spareness of her keyboard support brought to mind singer-pianist Shirley Horn.
But Krall's piano improvisations were more detailed than Horn's, full of mood swings and rhythmic twists that fell naturally into her narrative flow. Long, winding passages were tagged with chordal accents or periods of silence pregnant with drama. The overall effect was one of hearing four musicians, rather than three.
Her vocals were similarly inventive. Working in warm, character-filled tones, Krall showed a lot of personality, both in the off-beat way she delivered a lyric and in the character she injected as she formed words. No weighty stylist, Krall presented the songs in straight-ahead fashion, with a minimum of embellishment and only a smattering of scat.
Working mostly from her recent release, "Only Trust Your Heart," Krall's set was a tasteful selection of the familiar and the not-so. She opened with Peggy Lee's "I Love Being Here With You," borrowed from Ahmad Jamal's arrangement of "This Can't Be Love" and brought a fresh, sexy bounce to Louis Jordan's "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby." An instrumental feature, Horace Silver's "Juicy Lucy," highlighted her playful sense of swing.
Webber worked with appropriate understatement while backing the singer, and showed a strong lyrical style bent improvising on Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me." Penn, a veteran who once worked with vocalist Betty Carter, was equally impressive, providing sizzling brush work behind the singer, while soloing in a dense, to-the-beat style that suggested a tune's melody.
It would be a shame, as it was in Cole's case, for Krall's ability at the piano to be overshadowed by her singing. But, considering how fine a vocalist she is, that's a very real danger.
* Diana Krall appears tonight at the the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City; 8 p.m. $15. (310) 271-9039.