[JPL] Playing It by Ear, in Her Life if Not Her Art

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 18 17:38:41 EDT 2006

September 17, 2006
Playing It by Ear, in Her Life if Not Her Art 
DIANA KRALL’S life is about to change. Sometime in
early December, this Canadian jazz singer and pianist,
who turns 42 on Nov. 16, is expecting to give birth to

“I never thought I would have this,” she said. “I
already had so much to be thankful for that I’d kind
of accepted that I would be alone.” 

Ms. Krall was sitting at a table in the Village
Vanguard, the New York jazz cellar where time seems
suspended in a musty 1950’s haze. Although she has
never performed there, she chose to be interviewed and
photographed at the Vanguard because of its timeless
jazz ambience and its proximity to the apartment she
shares with Elvis Costello, the British
singer-songwriter she married in December 2003. It is
one of two homes they share, the other being in her
hometown, Vancouver.

“I have no idea what lies ahead, and I don’t know a
lot of people in this situation who do,” she said,
when asked if she was fearful about the wrenching
changes having twins is certain to bring. “Elvis and I
will play it by ear. Both of us tend to be very
self-sufficient. We don’t have a lot of people around.
Now we’re going to have to have them. I’m learning to
ask for help and am in the process of getting a

This week Ms. Krall’s longtime label, Verve Records,
will release her 10th album, “From This Moment On,” a
swinging big-band record made with many of the same
musicians who accompanied her on her exuberant 2005
holiday album, “Christmas Songs.” Eight of its 11
songs, all standards, were recorded with the
Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. On three others,
including a dreamily reflective “Little Girl Blue”
that she says was partly inspired by listening to
Puccini, she sings with a quartet that includes her
longtime colleagues Anthony Wilson on guitar and the
co-leaders of the orchestra, John Clayton on bass and
Jeff Hamilton on drums. Ms. Krall herself plays piano.

The urge to make a big-band album — after releasing
two blockbuster records with strings, then taking a
risky plunge into the singer-songwriter realm — came
while she was on tour in France. 

“We were at dinner on a day off, and everyone was
talking and drinking wine, and ‘Sinatra at the Sands’
came on,” she recalled. “This was an album I’ve heard
since I was 15. I looked across the table at Jeff and
started singing along to ‘April in Paris.’ And Clayton
yelled, ‘D, we have to do that.’ ” 

“Christmas Songs” became the trial run for her new

A strapping 5 foot 8 with a thick mane of hair the
color of wild honey, Ms. Krall was voluptuously
pregnant in a black cocktail dress. Everything she
said came in short, nervous bursts, which she edited
and qualified as she went along. 

She still has traces of the slightly gawky woman she
used to be in the 90’s, when she exuded a palpable
discomfort with her own body in nightclub performances
at which she sometimes appeared to hide behind the
piano. In those days she rarely spoke from the stage
and walked on and off with the hunched posture of
someone shrinking from the spotlight. 

With her blond hair, deep voice and air of
inscrutability, she resembled the Kathleen Turner of
“Body Heat,” but without Ms. Turner’s commanding
self-assurance and dangerous erotic force field. Even
now she is admittedly very shy and reluctant to talk
about her personal life. But she has come a long way
out of her shell; today she radiates a subdued glamour
along with a tentative confidence, with the emphasis
on tentative. 

The metamorphosis began around the time she attained
the kind of global success rarely enjoyed by a jazz
performer with her 1999 album, “When I Look in Your
Eyes.” That record, lushly orchestrated by Johnny
Mandel, was followed two years later by the even more
opulent, bossa-nova-flavored “Look of Love,”
orchestrated by Claus Ogerman, the German-born
arranger of classic albums like “The Bill Evans Trio
With Symphony Orchestra,” “Francis Albert Sinatra and
Antonio Carlos Jobim” and most significant “Amoroso,”
the 1970 album by the Brazilian bossa nova pioneer
João Gilberto, to whom she paid tribute with sultry
covers of “ ’S Wonderful” and “Bésame Mucho.” 

“The Look of Love” sold 1.6 million copies in the
United States and cinched her status as a major
international pop-jazz star. Of all the albums of
orchestrated popular standards put out since Linda
Ronstadt revived the style in 1983 with Nelson Riddle,
“When I Look in Your Eyes” and “The Look of Love” are
the only ones that come close to matching the 50’s and
60’s classics by Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee
and Nat King Cole. 

The reasons are obvious. Unlike the folk-pop singers
who embraced standards late in their careers, Ms.
Krall is a workhorse who has been immersed in jazz
since childhood and has played with jazz musicians for
two decades. She attended the Berklee School of Music
for three semesters and has transcribed much of the
music by her favorite pianists. For the last decade
she has spent up to 300 days a year on the road. 

In retrospect, Ms. Krall said, she realizes that “The
Look of Love” was a deeply personal album whose songs
anticipated the death of her mother from multiple
myeloma in 2002. She ticks off four song titles that
reflect that loss: “Maybe You’ll Be There,” “I Get
Along Without You Very Well,” “Love Letters” and “I
Remember You.” Two close friends and musical mentors,
Rosemary Clooney and the bassist Ray Brown, died only
weeks after her mother. 

Several months later Ms. Krall met and fell in love
with Mr. Costello, and they married three years ago
this December. With his encouragement she took a risky
career leap and reinvented herself as a
singer-songwriter with her album “The Girl in the
Other Room.” With Mr. Costello she wrote six songs,
composing the music herself and writing outlines of
the lyrics, which he polished in a painstaking
back-and-forth collaboration.

But when the record came out, a significant segment of
her fan base felt betrayed by her abrupt abandonment
of standards in favor of a spikier, sparer
contemporary style. Unlike the luscious tonal baths of
her records with strings, “The Girl in the Other Room”
demanded the listener’s close attention. At her
concerts there were walkouts, and sales of “The Girl
in the Other Room,” while healthy (860,000), were a
little more than half those of “The Look of Love.” 

Although Ms. Krall was stung by the mixed reception,
she seems philosophical about it. “It was emotionally
exhausting, heavy-duty work,” she said. “If I hadn’t
explored it, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now. Writing
lyrics is the hardest thing.” 

Since then Ms. Krall has written at least one song
with Mr. Costello, which she says is too difficult for
her to sing, and she has not ruled out the possibility
of returning to songwriting for a possible future
project that would mix originals with standards. 

“The Girl in the Other Room” was at least an honorable
failure. Its knotty, impressionistic songs, like
“Departure Bay,” aimed as high artistically, within
the singer-songwriter genre, as her traditional
pop-jazz records. 

For someone so accomplished, Ms. Krall accepts praise
warily. Unlike Harry Connick Jr. — the only other jazz
singer and pianist of her generation to attain
comparable success, and a performer with an ego that
matches his talent — Ms. Krall is fiercely

Complimented on her hard-swinging voice-and-piano
version of “ ’Deed I Do,” on her concert DVD “Live in
Paris,” she frets that she was so nervous during the
performance that she injected too many quotations from
other songs into her piano improvisation.

Praise for her increasingly virtuosic pianism prompts
her to reel off the names of idols and role models,
from Nat King Cole to Fats Waller to Jimmy Rowles (her
most influential teacher) to Oscar Peterson, whom she
insists are far more accomplished.

Of her singing, which she took up relatively late, at
26, she said, “I have a limited register,” forgetting
that Billie Holiday, one of her many singing idols,
had an even more limited range. “But I think I have a
feel,” she acknowledged cautiously. 

The list of her favorite singers is as long as her
list of admired pianists. It includes Holiday,
Ernestine Anderson, Bing Crosby and Carmen McRae, who
also played piano and whose influence is most
prominent on Ms. Krall’s early albums.

Whether or not the rough-and-tumble big-band jazz of
“From This Moment On” matches the commercial success
of Ms. Krall’s records with strings, it should put to
rest any lingering doubts about her ability to swing.
>From the beginning of her career she has been dogged
by envy and condescension from old-time jazz critics
and musicians who resent her commercial success. Many
critics hold that an authentic jazz artist should be a
black American who has lived through hard times, and
not a blond, middle-class woman from Vancouver. 

But for Ms. Krall jazz rhythm has always come first.
Songs are delivered in extended, spontaneous,
loop-the-loop phrases with bent notes in performances
that spring directly from her dialogue with her
musicians as they playfully bounce around sounds and
ideas. Even when the setting is orchestral, she
doesn’t sing above the music so much as with it. 

Her phrasing is usually curt; notes at the ends of
passages are rarely drawn out for pretty effects. Her
vocal timbre is continually changing: hornlike one
second, whispery the next, then settling on a bright,
vibrant vowel sound charged with emotion; she
characteristically lingers sensuously over the sound
of the letter L. 

Her interpretive approach to torch singing is modern
in its refusal to wallow in heartbreak and dependence
on a lover, in the languid manner of an earlier
generation of pop-jazz divas. The coordination between
her singing and piano playing is often astonishing. On
the “Live in Paris” DVD, the affection and respect
exchanged between Ms. Krall and her musicians is

Beyond her shyness, and her tendency to worry over
details, is a performer with a formidable drive and
independent spirit. This is a woman, after all, who
instead of taking the conventional route of going to
college, getting a degree and settling down to raise a
family, lit out for Los Angeles by herself at 19 to
follow her dream. 

Her urge to charge forward has propelled her to where
she is today. “I’m not one to sit around,” she said.
“I like high adrenaline. I’m the last one to fall down
and the first one to say, ‘I may be tired, but I’ll
keep going.’ ”


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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