Diana Krall on Rediscovering Joy and Making the Record She Wanted to Make

Chris Willman
Diana Krall (Photo: Mary McCartney)

Diana Krall is an excitable gal. Her image may be languid, thanks to all those slow, sad songs she’s recorded over the years, and she’s been reticent in some interviews on subjects that don’t strike her fancy. But get her talking about actual music, and her thoughts are racing faster than her mouth can spit them out. She’s as much of a rapid-fire-patter music geek as anyone who ever wandered into your local vinyl shop.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Krall’s new album, Turn Up the Quiet. It’s a marked return to what jazz fans first fell in love with in the ’90s and early 2000s: Krall singing the Great American Songbook (albeit more obscure picks than you’re used to on standards albums) with intimate combos. Absent, mostly, is the prominent orchestration of more recent records, or the contemporary pop songs of her previous release. What most distinguishes it from even the early records is the uniform positivity of the tunes — which may be ironic, since, as she points out, the recording was bookended by a couple of unsettling deaths, the most recent being the unexpected passing of her legendary longtime producer, Tommy LiPuma.

Krall got on the phone to discuss why she thinks Turn Up the Quiet is her best album, an assessment with which the truest jazz buffs among her fandom may well agree.

Yahoo Music: People probably think you make this type of record all the time, but you’ve experimented so much with orchestration and different types of songs and producers, a record focused around small-ish arrangements and standards is not something you’ve done in recent years, or really since 2006. 

Diana Krall: No. So, there’s the interview, right there! [laughs] You know what? In all the sadness that’s been, thank God Tommy and I did this, because we said, “We’re just going to make a record that we want to make, and that we were not gonna worry about anything we want to do. Because I don’t want to do a thematic record. I don’t want to make an orchestra record or a tribute record or a this-or-that record. We’re not going to worry about too many solos. We’re going to make a jazz record.” And we just went for it.

You said this wasn’t a thematic album, and maybe you just meant musically. But it strikes me that lyrically it’s a concept album, almost. People associate you with torch songs and songs of longing. And I don’t know if you planned it this way, but these are all pretty much happy songs, or songs where the lovers are coming together, not falling apart.

I know. That’s the irony. The irony was that I started out with really quite sad songs, which is something I usually love to do, the more tragic things. And I just went, you know what? My father died two years ago. And I went through a really bad two years with pneumonia and other health problems. It’s usual that you would fall into some kind of depression after you lose a parent. That was a very difficult time for me. And I was sort of picking songs [that reflected a down mood]. When we went into the studio, I had maybe 75 songs. I drove [orchestrator] Alan [Broadbent] crazy every day, because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I would walk the sea wall in Vancouver and listen to playlists of things. And every morning we listen to Teddy Wilson with my children before they go to school. …  [Eventually] it naturally went that way.

One day I put “Isn’t it Romantic” [sheet music] on the piano, and then [bassist] John Clayton said, “Oh, I love that song,” so we played it. All of a sudden I was back to Bobby Short at the Café Carlyle, and hearing it in that Hannah and Her Sisters scene. And I thought, you know, this isn’t old people’s music — this is music that’s supposed to be for everybody. I hope there are some young people, younger than me, who are falling in love and have blue skies up ahead. You know, I think [the album’s sunnier mood] was necessary, because I was coming out of a really tough period, feeling joyful again and loving my life, and loving working with Tommy.

The irony is that Tommy died suddenly — and shockingly, two weeks after we finished the record. And that’s been a different turn. He would have loved to hear you say that you love the record, and be sitting beside me going, “Hey babe, we made a beautiful record” — which he did say to me before he passed. Thank God we had a chance to know what we did and be proud of what we did.

We had just gotten an advance of the album when the news came in that he’d passed. [Tommy LiPuma, who died at 80, had 33 Grammy nominations and five wins, and produced or co-produced 11 of Krall’s 13 albums.] I haven’t gotten the impression many people were expecting it.

No, nobody was. It’s been a shock. But his memorial was beautiful last Monday. So many people… He was so loved. And now, to move forward joyfully. The song that comes to mind is “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” That’s what I played, and that’s what I was thinking, as painful as it is. It’s the best record… It’s my favorite. I hadn’t really listened to it since, and it came on last night, when I got the vinyl copy. Everything on it is so honest, I think, and working with [famed engineer/mixer] Al [Schmitt], it wasn’t like a studio record where you come in and do many overdubs. That’s pretty much what it sounded like in the moment, except you have Al Schmitt making it sound that way.

It’s unusual for you to have several core bands on this album.

I said, let’s set ourselves up here for three different ensembles. Let’s get all the greatest musicians that I love and know really well, and some I haven’t worked with — the latter being [the combo of] Marc Ribot, Tony Garnier, Karriem Riggins, and [solo violinist[ Stuart Duncan. Stuart is the real wild card on this record; he can play anything. Then we had an ensemble with Jeff Hamilton, John Clayton, and Anthony Wilson, who I’ve known for 20 or 25 years, collectively. And then Russell Malone and Christian McBride, who I did all of [1997’s] Love Scenes with. So altogether we recorded maybe 40 songs together, and Tommy’s job was to cut it down to 11, and somehow it all worked out. Tommy said to me that he thinks it’s the most authentic, confident, relaxed record we’d done. Because I didn’t put any pressure on myself, other than to just play jazz, and play it as a duo sometimes, and just have a fun time. I think the key to making it a completely different record than what we’d done before was having [the new combo of] Ribot and Tony and Karriem and Stuart. So God bless Alan Broadbent, because we started out thinking about an orchestral record, and then it took us a long time before it evolved into something completely different. So I said, “Uh, Alan, I don’t think it’s gonna have as many strings as we thought.” But that’s not to say we don’t have 10 more songs in the can already waiting for that. So this is Part 1, I guess.

So you might release some albums of outtakes, using the 30 songs that didn’t make the cut?

Probably two more, yeah. And I’ve got cassette tapes that I found with Ray Brown [the legendary bassist, who died in 2002]. All sorts of things to do. But with Tommy specifically, I have a few duo things I did with me on just vocals and Alan Broadbent playing piano. And then I’ve got some demos with just me and John Clayton. And then we have at least 10 tracks that we completed that we looked at putting on the album.

There’s a little bit of orchestration on the album, but it’s mainly five, four, or three players at a time — and sometimes even fewer than that. Even within the stripped-down format, you find dynamic changes by stripping it down even more here and there, so that the first minute of a song might be just you singing with a bass, or interludes with just guitar and brushes. Those changes keep it interesting — and, sometimes, very quiet. Which, given the title, counts as truth in advertising.

It’s about creating the vibe, right? Before making the record, I was listening to a lot of Dinah Washington and Billie Holliday and those albums that Oscar Peterson did with Ben Webster. Everybody just played — especially Peterson with Astaire. Fred Astaire didn’t try to sound like a jazz singer. He just sang like Fred Astaire. And those guys just pipped; those guys laid it down, and nobody adjusted for anything. It just hit me. It just hit me as I realized how relaxed those records were, that I had to relax too. And maybe it’s my age or experience, where I just felt like I didn’t need so much. I mean, I’m glad that you hear that there are dynamics. The thing with “Blue Skies,” as soon as Christian and Russell kick in, it’s like, whoa! Hang on! It was so in the pocket, and also cinematic, in a way.

I think cinematically about everything. Other people have other ideas, and I have all these different ideas, and I don’t really want to tell them what mine are. With “Moonglow,” other people think of Picnic [the 1955 movie in which the song famously appeared], but [guitarist] Marc Ribot really understood that “Moonglow” is kind of the Coney Island roller rink for me. And “Sway” has always been beautifully recorded by Julie London and Michael Bublé, but theirs are more sort of dance [-oriented], more that kind of feel. I decided to take it down. Like, I see George Raft and Carole Lombard dancing at night in a movie — something a lot darker.

But it comes down to some sort of combination of a love for things gone by and modernism. Because Miles Davis and Gil Evans and the people that I admire, they played Gershwin and standards. It was modern music. It wasn’t just a state of being nostalgic.

Sometimes you’re happy when you’re not the sole standards-bearer out there. You’ve expressed support for the Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga collaborations being out there to help repopularize those tunes, even though you tend to dig deeper into the songbook. Now, I’m wondering if you’ve heard Bob Dylan’s new triple album, Triplicate, and what you think of that.

That’s really interesting that you mention it, because I love Bob. I discovered his writing later on, because I was listening to Charlie Parker and studying jazz, so although I was aware of Joni Mitchell and Bob, I wasn’t so familiar until maybe 20 years ago — which I guess is a long time ago now — when I really started heavily listening. With Bob, I loved the last two records he did [Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, also standards albums]. But Triplicate is particularly special. He’s written so many things that represent what happened before and what’s happening now that if he’s singing “September of My Years” or “Why Try to Change Me Now,” they’re so unique to him, too. On Triplicate, he’s referencing Sinatra so beautifully with the arrangements with the horns, so you know every tune before it starts, but there’s no piano on it. It’s Dean Parks and his band, and that’s what makes the difference. He understands the songs, like he’s telling them to you. He’s singing them like [Charlie] Chaplin or Buster [Keaton] would if they were singing these songs, I think [laughs]. And he has the right to sing them because they’re so autobiographical, in a way, to maybe how he’s feeling at the time. I haven’t spoken to him, so I don’t know this. But in listening to it, it definitely doesn’t sound like he’s just loosening his tie and standing in front of an old microphone.

Bob was writing his own songs in New York City while Davis was playing Billie Holiday. In No Direction Home, you see Billie Holliday, because he grew up at a time while that music was still being created, those standards, and they weren’t such old music. It was relatively new — or being newly interpreted by jazz musicians, more abstractly, in the ’60s. So I think that it’s not “OK, I’m older now, I’m gonna sing my standards.” Maybe it is — I can’t speak for him. But it’s very deep, I feel, and deeply personal, just like Sinatra knew what he was talking about when he recorded the songs. I love the records. I know he gets a lot of “Why are you doing that?” But I get it.