Diana Krall – Standing in the Smoky Haze

Diana Krall

Diana Krall has often walked a fine line between consummate jazz performer and canny crossover artist, not least with her recent vaudeville, jazz and blues inspired album Glad Rag Doll, and now even more so with Wallflower – her classy new, string-laden record peppered with songs by The Mamas & the Papas, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan. Peter Quinn spoke to the Canadian singer...

When you’re in that slightly euphoric, post-gig state, be careful what you agree to. You could end up doing a 10-day protest tour with a songwriting legend. Diana Krall was backstage in her dressing room with husband Elvis Costello at the 27th Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, California, earlier this year when fellow performer Neil Young popped his head around the door.

“Neil said, ‘Diane I’m going to do this thing against the tar sands, you wanna come?’ And I was, like, sure!” Krall tells me on the phone from Paris, where she’s about to bring her marathon Glad Rag Doll World Tour to a conclusion. Young was supporting the cause of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation community, who were presenting a legal challenge against tar sands expansion in their traditional Albertan homeland.

Diana Krall“And then I got a phone call,” Krall continues. “Neil Young’s asking you to go on this protest tour across Canada. And I went, ‘who else is doing it?’ And they went, ‘just you’.”

Cut to the first gig at Toronto’s Massey Hall. “I thought I had to do half an hour and they were like, no you have to do an hour – and there were a lot of flannel shirts out there! Neil said, ‘Diane just play whatever you want’. So I just walked out and opened with ‘Every Grain of Sand’, it was awesome. I’m so proud to say that I was actually part of something meaningful, a proper protest tour to make a statement. To be with Neil Young, to do that, I don’t think it’s really sunk in until now. It was really something else and something to tell my kids.” Diana Krall: vocalist, pianist, songwriter, mother and environmental campaigner. She even has the Neil Young/Diana Krall ‘Honor The Treaties’ hoodie and t-shirt to prove it. Sadly, the legal challenge didn’t succeed. “The fucking pipeline went through,” Krall notes. “I’m so mad about that and the way it was done.”

During my last conversation with Krall, an interview for The Arts Desk in 2012 when we talked about Glad Rag Doll, an album of vintage jazz and blues songs, it was very clear that she’d spent a lifetime contemplating the material. Produced by 16-time Grammy winner David Foster, the song list for Krall’s new album Wallflower is something quite different, a collection of some of the greatest pop songs from the late 1960s to the present day.

“I didn’t want to make a jazz-musician-making-new-jazz-standards record,” Krall says. “These aren’t the new standards, this is a classic pop record.” And, while Krall plays piano on the title track and contributes the occasional solo, it’s Foster who takes on the main piano duties. “David’s a great pianist, he’s a great accompanist, and I can’t play the way he plays. It’s not my style. It will take me a lot of practice to learn all of these songs and I’ll never play them the way David plays them.”

This also means that, as a listener, your focus is entirely on the voice, which is late night, grown up, über-sensual à la Julie London. The kind of voice, in other words, that chanteuses such as Melody Gardot can only dream about.

Having worked with some of the best arrangers around, including Johnny Mandel (When I Look In Your Eyes) and Claus Ogerman (The Look of Love, Quiet Nights), how did working with Foster compare?

“I picked all the songs, but it was what he did with them that was really incredible. He’s just kind of a genius. We recorded the Paul McCartney song [‘If I Take You Home Tonight’] and then the next day he came with that whole middle section, orchestrated. And I said, how did you come up with that? We’re both from Canada; we’re both from the same place – small towns 70 miles from each other. We have a lot of similar reference points and a love of jazz. I didn’t realise how amazing he was until I worked with him. I didn’t realise he had everything going on.”

I remark that it’s difficult to marry Foster’s love of jazz and his ability to create such incredible beauty with his support for the Republican presidential nominee in the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney (Foster spoke at a private fundraising event for Romney in September 2012). “I actually don’t even want to know that, OK,” Krall laughs. “Don’t make me look at that”. Krall, remember, is an artist who refused an invitation to the White House when George W. Bush was in office.

Framed by The Mamas and the Papas (‘California Dreamin’’) and Crowded House (‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’), and including duets with Michael Bublé on ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ and Bryan Adams on ‘Feels Like Home’, plus other hallowed classics such as ‘Superstar’ and ‘Desperado’, I wonder how she even begins to try and make these songs new.

“Well, it helps to be quite naïve and realise that they’re hallowed classics after you’ve done them,” she says. “You’ve got to put your head in the sand a little bit, you know, and not kind of think about it. I’ve spent my whole career doing that, because I’m singing songs that were done by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. After we did ‘Superstar’, they said you just can’t help thinking about Luther [Vandross] and I went ‘Luther? I forgot about that!’”

Hearing ‘Desperado’ and knowing that Krall is a huge Ray Charles fan, I’m reminded of the quote in the sleeve notes to The Very Best of The Eagles in which Don Henley states: ‘When I play it and sing it, I think of Ray Charles. It’s really a Southern gothic thing’.

Diana Krall

“Well, there you go,” Krall says. “And anybody who gives The Eagles a hard time should look at that quote. But I associate it more with Linda Ronstadt. I really love Linda and I heard a lot of her at home. My dad had those records she did with Nelson Riddle.”

If the Bob Dylan title track, written in 1971 but only released in 1991 as part of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, sounds like a folk song that’s been around forever (“I have seen you standing in the smoky haze. And I know that you’re gonna be mine one of these days”) and ‘California Dreamin’ features harmonic substitutions that take the breath away, the real revelation of the album is McCartney’s ‘If I Take You Home Tonight’. It’s almost impossible to believe that the song is an outtake from his 2012 Grammy-winning standards album, Kisses on the Bottom – named after a line from the album’s lead-off song ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter’, as every Fats Waller fan will know – produced by Tommy LiPuma and for which Krall acted as musical director. The song is, quite simply, drop-dead gorgeous. “I know,” Krall agrees, “that’s why I did it. I think it’s my favourite song on the record, actually.” How it didn’t make the cut on Kisses is an unfathomable mystery.

Given that Wallflower is a collection of classic songs from the late 1960s to the present day, the one real surprise is that there’s nothing by Canada’s holy trinity of singer-songwriters: Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Except, there very nearly was. Krall did actually record ‘A Case of You’ for the album. At the time of our interview the track list had still not been finalised, although Krall tells me that the version of ‘A Case of You’, re-recorded with Vince Mendoza, was “stunning”. Tantalisingly, it’s one of a number of songs that didn’t make the final cut. Krall sings Mitchell, arranged by Mendoza. Now that I would love to hear. Perhaps at some point in the future an expanded edition of the album (The Complete Wallflower?) will be made available, complete with outtakes.

When you think of Krall’s die-hard jazz fans who’ve grown up with her early albums such as Only Trust Your Heart, All For You and Love Scenes, I wonder if – after Glad Rag Doll and Wallflower – they should be getting nervous now that she might be doing something similar to Nat King Cole and leaving her jazz material behind.

“No, no, because I’m not going to go out and tour this record,” she says. “I’m still doing jazz concerts, I’m doing my last Glad Rag Doll concert on Sunday with the whole stage set-up. I don’t want to abandon jazz and swing music and all the things I love. The same question happened to me with Look of Love. It was a similar thing; there wasn’t a lot of jazz playing in there. I’ll just figure it out as I go along and I’ll look forward to playing my next jazz record, I guess.”

This is good news for the music. In a feature in the July 2014 issue of DownBeat celebrating the magazine’s 80th anniversary, ‘The 80 Coolest Things in Jazz Today’, Krall is honoured as one of five so-called Gateway Artists, people ‘who have drawn listeners to the beauty of jazz’. Harry Connick Jr, Robert Glasper, Wynton Marsalis and Esperanza Spalding complete this select quintet.

“Well, if it wasn’t for Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis I wouldn’t be doing this. When that Wynton record Think Of One came out I was like, wow! It was at the start of my college years. Then I went to see When Harry Met Sally and I heard Harry Connick and I thought: I want to do that. Harry’s a true jazz pianist and I have so much gratitude for him, so I’m glad he’s included in there because there’s only one of him and he’s an unbelievable musician.”

The one disappointing thing to note about the list – disappointing in that it doesn’t reflect the reality of the current scene at all – is that of the 80 coolest things, there are just six women. In addition to Krall and Spalding, the other four are guitarist Mary Halvorson, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, pianist Hiromi Uehara, plus the NYC-based concert producer and Blue Note Records exec producer, Megan Stabile.

“Well, that’s not very good,” Krall says. “What about Cassandra Wilson and Terri Lyne Carrington, and the million other people? Dianne Reeves, Renee Rosnes? It’s too bad there’s only six women.”

From the straight-ahead trio date of her debut Stepping Out (1993) to the perfect pop of Wallflower, Krall has carved out one of the most successful careers of any female jazz artist, with Grammy Awards and multi-platinum albums too numerous to mention. Let’s just hope that there’s a little more Frim Fram Sauce along the way.

Album Review

Diana Krall – Wallflower ★★★★

Diana Krall WallflowerVerve  

Diana Krall (v, p); plus various personnel including David Foster (p). Rec. date not stated. Buy from Amazon / Buy from iTunes

Produced by David Foster, who also takes on main piano duties, this new studio album from Diana Krall presents a 12-track collection of songs from the 1960s to the present day. Krall only plays piano on the title track – a Bob Dylan rarity that, once heard, immediately lodges itself in your consciousness – and the occasional solo, so you can’t help but focus on her voice (although Foster’s no slouch on the piano). And it’s captured here to perfection: late night, grown up, über-sensual à la Julie London. If the album’s two duets, ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ with Michael Bublé and ‘Feels Like Home’ with Bryan Adams, are largely forgettable, there are some genuine standouts including heartfelt arrangements of ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘Superstar’, plus a surprisingly touching take on the Crowded House hit, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. Best of all is Paul McCartney’s ‘If I Take You Home Tonight, an outtake from his 2012 Grammy-winning album, Kisses on the Bottom. Krall was musical director on that album and clearly recognises a great song when she hears it. – Peter Quinn

Photos: Top image by Verve; all other images by Tim Dickeson 

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

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