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Diana Krall: This Year’s Model

She has a new sound, a new album and new husband, but one thing hasn't changed: the vocalist is the biggest superstar in jazz

Diana Krall (photo: Mark Seliger)
Diana Krall (photo: Mark Seliger)
Diana Krall
Diana Krall (photo: Mark Seliger)
Diana Krall
Diana Krall (photo: Mark Seliger)
Diana Krall
Diana Krall (photo: Mark Seliger)

Mose Allison’s “Stop This World,” the first track on Diana Krall’s boldly brilliant The Girl in the Other Room, opens with a five-note vamp that sounds suspiciously similar to the one that ignites Peggy Lee’s “I’m a Woman.”

The allusion, real or imagined, is tremendously apt. Krall’s history, with her youthful achievements as a jazz pianist overshadowed by her subsequent massive success as a vocal interpreter of velvety standards, has often been likened to the comparable career arc of Nat “King” Cole.

It is, however, Lee who provides a more accurate blueprint for the 39-year-old Canadian.

Physically, of course, they’re poles apart. Indeed, it’s tough to imagine Krall, whose natural beauty suggests a scrubbed wholesomeness, done up in Lee’s trademark sequins and lacquer. (And for the record, Krall is even more stunning in person than even her sultry album covers suggest.)

Still, it’s evident that the perennially well-shod Krall is following in Lee’s significant footprints. Like Lee, her prodigious talent is supported by an intense professional integrity, a near-perfectionist work ethic and an undiluted purity of purpose.

Like Lee, she’s intensely private yet candidly outspoken, occasionally self-deprecating, devilishly funny and refreshingly nonegotistic: As Terry Teachout keenly observed in the liner notes for 1996’s All for You, “she acts as if she’s the least important person in the room.”

Like Peggy Lee, Diana Krall seems incapable of spuriousness, and as the new The Girl in the Other Room attests for the first time, Krall is an impressively skilled songwriter-just as Lee was.

The similarity between the two women also extends to what they lack: appropriate critical respect.

Despite five decades of multifaceted dynamism, Peggy Lee was never, at least not in her lifetime, given her proper due. Observers tended to focus on her kittenish allure and plunging decolletage rather than celebrating her risk-taking gustiness. This was a woman who changed record labels solely for the right the perform Rodgers and Hart’s “Lover” the way she wanted and who, at the height of her mid-’50s popularity, sidestepped standards for Sea Shells, a bizarre, harp-accented collection that simultaneously embraced “Greensleeves,” the Irish ditty “Wearing of the Green” and various Chinese tone poems.

Krall, too, whom the New York Times once politely dismissed as “cautious” and lacking “a deep end,” has for years been dogged by the jazz cranks who say she’s too attractive to be taken seriously as a jazz singer or-that most ghastly of sins-being too commercially popular.

A while back in these pages, Nat Hentoff observed, while maligning Krall’s jazz credibility, that “to merit being called a jazz singer you have to have something to say.” True enough, at least in the abstract, but I’d argue that Krall has long had something unique to say, even if it was in the words of others. Consider, for instance, the devastating sense of loss and bewilderment that defines her “Dancing in the Dark” on The Look of Love or the giddy sexual wriggling of her “Popsicle Toes” on When I Look In Your Eyes or the sassy self-irony that underscores “You’re Looking at Me” on All for You.

Now, with The Girl In the Other Room, Krall is speaking louder and clearer than ever, proving once and for all that hers is a voice to be reckoned with-and respected.

Canadian arrogance tends to be an oxymoron. Canadians typically leave the flag-waving and horn-blowing to their southern neighbors. Perhaps, then, it is Krall’s innate Canadian-ness that makes her so notoriously press shy.

Tremendously private and uncomfortable talking about or analyzing herself, she did no publicity for her Grammy-winning Live in Paris album and has, in fact, earned an unfair reputation for icy aloofness. She is, however, willingly tub-thumping The Girl in the Other Room, her eighth album and first studio effort since 2001’s The Look of Love.

Specifically eager to communicate to the jazz audience, Krall agreed, at the very beginning of the album’s prerelease media flurry, to spend most of a wintry, New York afternoon with JazzTimes. Ensconced in a small suite in Soho’s Mercer Hotel, which, much like Krall herself, is a study in understated elegance, she explains, “I’m talking to you because you’re from a jazz magazine, so I can talk about Jimmy Rowles and Ray Brown. In a lot of the interviews I do, they look at me like, ‘What is she talking about?’ And it’s important for me that your readers know my reference points and understand what, in terms of music, matters to me. There are too many [media outlets] where I can ramble on about Jimmy or Ray for an hour and they’ll still write about my shoes, which really isn’t my fault-even if my shoes are fabulous, which they usually are!” she laughs with infectious gusto.

Well aware that Other Room marks a sharp left turn from the collections of smooth chestnuts fans have come to expect from her, Krall avers, “It’s dangerous to cling to a specific image or style. By doing so, I would probably have a nice career, but I wouldn’t feel like a true artist if I didn’t try to work through what I needed to do and wasn’t fearless about it.”

Of the disc’s dozen tracks, half are originals. Krall wrote the music and collaborated with husband Elvis Costello on the lyrics (they were married last December 5 at mutual friend Elton John’s estate outside London). The balance of the album is made up of material from such welcome, if unexpected, sources as Allison, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt and Costello himself. The closest Krall comes to the sort of bona-fide jazz standards she’s commonly associated with is the peppery Billie Holiday anthem “I’m Pulling Through.”

The birth of The Girl in the Other Room has, Krall admits, been long and arduous. Her previous studio album, The Look of Love, recorded less than a year before her mother’s death and filled with such intimate reflections on impending loss as “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and “Maybe You’ll Be There,” was, she explains, “also a very personal album for me. It enabled me to really tour hard and work hard on my piano playing.”

As far back as two years ago, when the exhaustive Look of Love tour was in its early stages, Krall remembers “thinking a lot about writing, but I never had the confidence to write lyrics. Then I met Elvis at the Grammys, where we presented together. We started talking and he said, ‘I’ll send you a couple of tunes.’ Well, I can’t sing any of his tunes because they’re too rangy and too hard,” she laughs. “But I admired his artistry and that he could do a rock ‘n’ roll album then do a record with the Brodsky Quartet, and that he’s had such a long, diverse career. So, we began talking about writing and that’s how it all started. I can tell you the exact date: May 12, 2002, was the first e-mail I sent to him saying, ‘I just want to do artistically what I want to do.’ I still have it on my Blackberry.”

Commenting on the album’s evolution, Krall says, “I got together with Tommy [LiPuma, who has produced every Krall album since 1994’s Only Trust Your Heart and shares a coproducer credit with her on The Girl in the Other Room] in a studio with a piano. I played through about 30 songs I had ideas for, [and] recorded a bunch of tunes to just live with for a while. Then we went into Yoshi’s for three days, playing three sets a night with Christian McBride, Peter Erskine and Anthony Wilson”-who represent Krall’s core trio on Other Room, with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton alternating for McBride and Erskine on three tracks and Terri Lyne Carrington subbing for Erskine on one.

“Then we went back into the studio and just kept writing,” Krall says. “It took me the longest time ever to do this album. Usually we do it in about a week. So for me to take three months in making an album is a lot. I actually started on May 27 of last year and it took me until September to keep writing music and Elvis writing lyrics and us telling stories and going through that process of me saying to him, ‘This is what I want to say [but] how do I say it? I can’t do it.’ Then I’d get frustrated and go through that typical thing you do of saying, ‘This is all shite!’ and working through all the ego stuff while trying to just trust my instincts.”

Interestingly, the creative fruition of The Girl in the Other Room overlapped the release of North, Costello’s dazzling, jazz-seeped salute to love lost and found that harkened back a half-century to the moody magnificence of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours.

North’s through-theme of emerging from the relationship doldrums into a blazing romantic light clearly suggests-especially with the wink-wink, nudge-nudge Canadianisms that fill the title track-that the light at the end of Costello’s tunnel is Krall. But such a suggestion makes her blush ever so slightly and tug on a forelock while whispering, “Well, you’d have to ask him about that.”

The Girl in the Other Room is too startlingly fresh to be considered derivative of Costello, but it’s impossible not to recognize his fingerprints all over it, and Krall happily concedes, “Without him I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” It is, in fact, easy to imagine Other Room as the yin to North’s yang, with the two halves contributing to a greater creative whole. Such, however, was never their purposeful intention. “Someone else very close to both of us said the same thing,” muses Krall, “but it was something we didn’t even think about.”

Asked if there was a specific objective or agenda for the album, Krall gleefully replies, “Shit, no! I didn’t even know what I was doing when I started. I was trying different Tom Waits tunes and was looking at standards. Then we kept on writing and everything sort of fit. We never really knew until the day of the day.

“For instance, I went into the studio and said, ‘I’ve got this tune called “Abandoned Masquerade.”‘ And everybody said, ‘OK, let’s try it.’ Bing. Second take. Whereas with “I’m Coming Through” [a Krall-Costello composition, not to be confused with “I’m Pulling Through”] I probably did about five different versions of it before coming back to the original one. So, you don’t really know what you’re going to get. That’s the fun part. That’s what is so great about not having a plan.”

Given how radically different Other Room is from every Krall album before it and how there’s a sensually raspy rawness to this Diana that’s never before been evident, is it reasonable to assume that the “girl” of the title is actually a variation of herself?

“Same girl, different room?” she ponders while apologizing for slurping her latte. “I’m usually too busy trying to find the right B-flat chord to think about things like that, [but] I was feeling different and this album reflects that. I went right back to Jimmy Rowles with this. It’s taken a long time for me to process hanging out with Jimmy every day for almost four years, and with this album I found myself thinking about him a lot. I have this hi-fi at home [on Vancouver Island, where Krall and Costello wrote most of Other Room’s original tracks] and I brought out all my records from high school and started playing them. And I listened to The Peacocks in all its scratchy glory and found it sort of entering in, found myself intuitively opening up to it.”

There is, of course, some risk that Other Room might alienate her large contingency of mainstream fans. “On that very first e-mail to EC”-her name for Elvis- “I said, ‘I’m just ready to go! I just need to do something and I’m not going to start worrying about things like losing my core audience.’ Hopefully, my core audience will come with me. We’ve been playing a lot of this stuff on the road and the reaction has been pretty good. But if I start worrying about that, I won’t stay true to my artistic integrity and I’ll be really boring. I started making records purely for musical reasons and have always done that. We’ll see what happens. I’d be dishonest to say that there weren’t meetings about the marketing [of the album] and what people were going to think. That’s when the ego kicks in, and for a moment I was worrying about that. It’s natural for artists to overthink things and feel self-doubts, but I realized if I started doing that I wouldn’t enjoy this record. So, I decided all I could worry about was how I was going to say what I wanted to say.”

Krall says her father has dubbed The Girl in the Other Room “a ‘listening album.’ You have to sit down and really listen to it.”

True. Unlike When I Look In Your Eyes or The Look of Love, it’s not the sort of album you can have lingering in the background while eating dinner. “Oh, no!” she cries in mock horror. “Does this mean I won’t be played in restaurants any more? No doubt,” she jests, before paraphrasing one of her favorite filmmakers, Woody Allen: “I’ll have people coming up to me saying, ‘I love your records, especially the early funny ones!’ But I’m pretty lighthearted about [the album]. You’ve got to lighten up about it. It is what it is and I hope people like it. I’m really happy with the results because this is the only thing I was feeling to do.”

Mose Allison’s “Stop the World” is an inspired choice as The Girl in the Other Room’s opener, making it immediately obvious we’ve departed the soft safety of Tin Pan Alley for some exciting, uncharted place. Having most recently heard Krall purr her way through the likes of “Fly Me to the Moon” and “‘S Wonderful” on Live in Paris and trade shopping quips with Natalie Cole on a peppy “Better Than Anything” (from Cole’s Ask a Woman Who Knows), it’s delightfully disconcerting to hear her scowl cynical ennui such as, “There’s just too many pigs in the same trough [and] too many buzzards sitting on the fence.”

Gone, agrees Krall, is that ingrained Canadian politeness, adding, “It’s also a bit self-deprecating: ‘I got too smart for my own good / Just don’t do the things I know I should / There’s got to be a better way.’ Elvis asked, ‘Is that a political statement?’ and I said, ‘It can be. It can be all sorts of things. It can be simply about dealing with your own shit or can be a much greater statement.'”

Krall’s take on Tom Waits’ “Temptation,” the album’s first single, evinces an earthy sexiness that is sinfully delicious, though she admits, “originally I had it rawer. That’s the hard part about interpreting a great songwriter like Tom Waits. It’s like interpreting a Joni Mitchell song. It’s so uniquely individual to them and, like, why would I want to mess with that? There were four other Tom Waits tunes I was thinking about-“Cold Water,” “Time,” which we’re still doing in concert, “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” which we did at Yoshi’s, and “The Heart of Saturday Night.” I’ve still got those in my back pocket. He’s always been one of my favorites. I remember finding Mule Variations and going ‘Wow! What’s this?’ I think it’s a masterpiece. ‘Temptation’ was something I’d been thinking about for a long time but kept pulling back on. Finally, I said to myself, ‘Just sing it like you! Don’t overthink it again.’ It was really fun to do a more laidback approach, and that’s how it came out. Tom always likes creepy organ, so I said to Neil [Larsen, who guests on this track on Hammond B3], ‘I want creepy funeral parlor organ!'”

Costello’s classic “Almost Blue,” to which Krall lends a hauntingly beautiful despair that is almost suffocating, was the first song recorded for the album, and her association with it dates back almost two years. “Elvis came to hear me at Royal Albert Hall a year ago last September,” she sighs with comic dismay, “and I thought it would be a great idea if we played ‘Almost Blue’ because he was coming to the show. So I played it for an encore and he came backstage and was like ‘What have you done?'”

When it came time to include it for Other Room Krall wasn’t about to let Costello watch her record it. “Are you kidding?” she laughs. “No way! He came in afterward and I played it for him. We’ve also done a video for it that is so beautiful because it was shot all around my home with the fog and the moon.”

Much like Other Room’s title track, Krall and Costello’s “I’ve Changed My Address” talks of shifting gears and expanding one’s universe. As such, it is, she says, “all about Jimmy Rowles. I wrote it with Jimmy in mind. I’ve even got the original drum part that has Rowles/Bradley’s written across the top of it,” referring to the Manhattan club, owned by Bradley Cunningham, where Rowles was a regular.

“It’s about sitting in jazz clubs in New York as a 24-year-old student and blowing smoke rings and listening to people like Jimmy and Freddie Hubbard and about all of the changes that have occurred since,” Krall says. “It’s about all the things I was lucky enough to do while learning to be a jazz musician. I was telling EC about this one club I recently went into. It hasn’t changed a bit, except there’s a TV, a neon sign and a pool table where the piano used to be. And there are all of these ghosts around.”

Near the song’s end, Krall sings, “When I departed I took only what I needed,” a line she says is about “taking from that time, from that club, only the inspiration I needed. I look at these things more like the scenes from a film. Like, the [whispered] end of “I’ve Changed My Address” is more dramatic and theatrical than something I’d usually do. I thought about changing it, then realized the reason I did that was because of Jimmy. I found this video of Jimmy with Oscar Peterson from a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] show from the ’70s. I hadn’t seen Jimmy, outside of photographs, since he died, and it was like a good visit with him. He [dropping her voice to a hoarse whisper] talked like that, and that’s consciously in the style of ‘I’ve Changed My Address.'”

Krall kicks things up a notch with Bonnie Raitt’s boisterous “Love Me Like a Man,” a tune she aptly calls, “just a real get-down groove,” then slides into a silky “I’m Pulling Through,” which she believes signifies “the point of this record: about how you choose to respond to things. Sometimes your response is to freak out and sometimes it’s just to move on and find something else. It’s a lovely tune and an area I feel comfortable in [because] it sounds like everything else I’ve done. And thank goodness for Tommy because I was so into trying things that were new that at first I was like, ‘Yeah, well, it’s all right.’ Tommy’s always talking about the importance of balance in terms of keeping what you’ve done before and bringing new things to it. So he said, ‘You can’t leave it off.’ That’s why I have him. Sometimes he hears things that I can’t because I’m too close.”

The powerfully disconsolate “Black Crow,” on which Krall outstandingly captures the spirit of fellow Canuck Joni Mitchell, marks the second time she’s attempted a Mitchell cover-but it’s the first she’s genuinely happy with. “I don’t like the rendition I did of ‘A Case of You’ on the Live in Paris album,” she confesses. “I can’t stand listening to it because it is so different from how I interpret it now that I’ve really got a handle on it. ‘Black Crow’ is very hard, but it was something I could really get into because I think she wrote it from a West Coast perspective and I could really relate to it because I was working on the album on Vancouver Island.”

“Abandoned Masquerade,” arguably both the album’s linchpin and its finest track, sums up Krall’s newfound creative freedom as a songwriter. It is, she says, “about telling stories from my own experience, instead of expressing myself through other people’s words and music, [and] thinking about Jimmy Rowles and being inspired by things that I once wanted to get away from but now find exotic about Vancouver Island. It will be difficult for me to perform this music for a while because I’m so emotionally close to it and am expressing what I was truly feeling.” Also, she enthuses, “the bridge [on ‘Abandoned Masquerade’] is so funky. I love what Christian and John and Jeff and Anthony and everybody bring to this track. How thankful I am that they care enough to put their interpretation on something I’ve written and make it more special than I ever thought possible.”

The album’s closing track, Krall and Costello’s “Departure Bay,” seems so filled with farewells that it’s easy to assume the song is her way of dealing with her mother’s death. Not so, says Krall, who explains, “It’s not about saying goodbye to my mom, because I don’t believe in closure. I think that grief is like tides. It’s timeless and just gets different. [The song] acknowledges what families go through, but it also shows that life’s not always miserable. My mom died, and then Rosemary [Clooney] died and then Ray died four days after that, [but] then I met the love of my life. You can go through tremendous hell with your guts hanging out and then somebody new comes into your life. I never thought I’d get married, then found someone as wonderful and loving as Elvis in the midst of everything else.”

Ironically, the positive advance buzz that’s building around Other Room has already led to rather ludicrous speculation that Krall is ditching her professional past in favor of musical roads less traveled. “People say, ‘You’ve abandoned standards,'” she says with a wry smile. “‘You’re not the glamour girl any more.’ Well, yes I am. I’m not stopping that! Art should never be one-dimensional. Life can’t be contained in just one box. Life’s not like that, and neither is art or music. The Look of Love or a piece like that shouldn’t define who I am; The Girl in the Other Room is just a different piece.”

Apart from the two tracks she’s recorded with Bucky Pizzarelli, Ben Wolfe and Lewis Nash for the soundtrack to the forthcoming Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely starring Kevin Kline, Krall has no desire to speculate on where her post-Other Room path might lead. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” she insists. “Right now my focus is getting through my press tour without rocking in the corner in the fetal position, and getting out on the road and playing again. I’ve got the year blocked until December. Now I think I have the courage to not feel that I have to tour just one album. I have a few albums to incorporate stuff from and can do what I want. I’m looking forward to the freedom that gives me.”

As for possible collaborations with Costello, her response to the suggestion of a shared tour or album is an adamant “No!” Nor is she a fan of the gaudy media glare that typically surrounds famous couples of the Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez ilk. “We’re not at that level of celebrity,” she insists. “I’m not comfortable in that place.”

A self-confessed cineaste who starts each day by turning on Turner Classic Movies to see which vintage film is playing, Krall says her all-time favorite is the satiric Preston Sturges gem Sullivan’s Travels. Appropriately, she is particularly fond of the diner scene in which aspiring actress Veronica Lake takes pity on disguised film director John “Sully” Sullivan (Joel McCrea), whom she thinks is a penniless bum putting on airs. Lake turns to him and cautions, “Don’t get ritzy.”

For, soar as Diana Krall surely will with the passionately outre Other Room and whatever subsequent projects she decides to stop the world with, there seems little danger she’ll ever getting ritzy on us. “It’s difficult,” she concludes, “to find that fine line between being boastful about your life-because I can say my life is pretty great, it is wonderful-and saying, ‘Oh, yes, we’re just normal’ without bullshitting. EC and I work very well together, and work very hard at being normal.” Originally Published