By James Turano
Steeped deeply and nestled comfortably in the jazz tradition, Diana Krall is an elegant enigma. The lauded pianist-vocalist, who seemingly can’t help but strike a classy and graceful, yet playfully teasing persona, has creatively carved a unique career defined by meandering musically into a variety of genres with ease and originality.
She follows a sonic path that knows no bounds.
That path now leads Krall on an ambitious world tour in support of her new album, Turn Up the Quiet, which was released in May and became her ninth album to debut at number one on Billboard’s Jazz chart. This latest trek includes a “must-see” stop at Ravinia on June 28. It will be her seventh appearance since 1998 at the historic venue.
Reached by phone in her native Canada last month—casually dropping a few “a-boots” throughout the conversation as proof of that heritage—Krall considers her past experiences playing at Ravinia: “It’s magical. The audience, the outdoors, the whole environment. You can feel the people out there; you can see the lights far into the lawn. It’s special. It encourages a performer to be a little looser on stage, and that’s my style—improv. It’s who I am.
“I remember my first time there [on the Pavilion stage], I opened for Tony Bennett. That’s a great memory, especially so early in my career,” Krall says.
Music washed over her from an early age, as Krall’s mother sang in a local choir and her father played the piano and was an avid record collector. This fertile background provided an extensive exposure to jazz, forming a solid foundation for her knowledge and appreciation of bebop. “I think Dad had every recording Fats Waller [the jazz pianist who wrote ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’] ever made,” she once recounted about her early influences, “and I tried to learn them all.”
Krall seemingly was born with bass and treble clefs in her wrists. She was playing piano by age 4, refined her raw talents in her high school jazz band, and by 15 was performing in local restaurants. She attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston on a music scholarship, and then transplanted to Los Angeles.
After stints in Europe and then back home in Canada, in the early ’90s she finally settled in New York, where she began to record and draw interest in jazz circles. Most important, Krall and her 1993 debut album, Stepping Out, caught the ear of producer Tommy LiPuma, a veteran of records by Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Al Jarreau, and many others.
He took Krall under his wing and produced her second album, 1995’s Only Trust Your Heart. Ultimately, LiPuma went on to produce 11 of Krall’s 13 albums, including her latest. Sadly, it would be their last collaboration. In March, just two months after completing the new record, LiPuma passed away at age 80.
“He wasn’t ill during the recording. He was strong and energetic. Always pushing me. There were times I was tired and wanted to quit for the day and he’d say, ‘Oh, come, a little wine and pasta and you’ll be fine.’ That was Tommy. It was devastating when I heard the news,” Krall recalls.
Turn Up the Quiet is a much-anticipated return to Krall’s jazz roots. With the late LiPuma’s blessing, the album finds her exploring new textures with an impressive collection of familiar musicians. To create diverse moods throughout, she features them in a variety of configurations, including a trio with bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Russell Malone; a quartet of guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist John Clayton Jr., and drummer Jeff Hamilton; and a quintet with drummer Karriem Riggins, bassist Tony Garnier, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and respected guitarist Marc Ribot, who adds his signature work to the shadowy “Moonglow.”
The collection is a romantic affair from its first song (“Like Someone in Love”) to its last (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”), with Krall offering a seductive suite of songs celebrating love and longing. Krall and her cohorts cavort in atmospheric arrangements of jazz perennials, including Cole Porter’s blissful “Night and Day” and Nat “King” Cole’s bouncy “L-O-V-E.” And when Krall coos and croons on Rodgers and Hart’s mood-inducing “Isn’t It Romantic,” it’s time to dim the lights.
Among the highlights that require repeated listens is Krall’s dreamy take on “Sway,” which is hot and heavy in its delivery, and lingers hauntingly with an ethereal, yearning orchestral coda. It’s a meditation you don’t want to end.
“That’s the goal,” Krall confirms with an appreciative laugh.
Then there’s “No Moon at All,” which begins with a twisting tempo change and bewilders and delights with Krall’s flowing piano wandering before slyly finding its way home. Finally, the album’s rousing closer, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is an urgent, up-tempo tribute to the gypsy jazz jaunt of Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, wherein Krall and her mates let fly with swinging precision and joyous fun. It gets the heart pumping and keeps you wanting more.
“What’s exciting for me now is, I finally get to play these songs for an audience,” she adds.
Krall’s rise helped elevate jazz in the mainstream mindset, fueled by a string of successful and critically-acclaimed albums—from the Grammy-nominated Love Scenes (1997) through winners When I Look in Your Eyes (1999), The Look of Love (2001), and Live in Paris (2002)—growing from Krall’s reverent 1996 tribute album to the timeless music of Nat “King” Cole, All for You.
What sets Krall’s albums and concerts apart is her uncanny ability to choose songs that deserve renewed recognition and enticingly lend themselves to her unique interpretations.
In fact, in 2015 Krall got gutsy by detouring from her usual jazz trails with a well-crafted pop covers album, Wallflower. It was her insightful choice of composers and songs, including The Eagles’ “Desperado,” Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” and The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” that perfectly represented the ’60s and ’70s era of the singer-songwriter and proved Krall’s ability to expertly expand beyond her and her audience’s expectations.
“I’m always thinking about which songs to sing. I’m listening to music, talking to people, seeing people perform. I walk around with a notebook writing things down. I have my iPod, different playlists. It’s all part of the process,” Krall says. “For the new album, I came into the studio with sheet music for about 75 songs. ‘I’m Confessin’ (that I Love You)’ was originally a warm-up in the studio. But the tape was running and it became a happy accident that’s one of my favorites on the record.
“I don’t give direction to the musicians. I try to convey a vibe and a feel, rather than tell them what or how to play,” Krall muses.
Ultimately it was Krall’s keenly cultivated song list and dynamic performances of standards by Berlin, Porter, and Kern on 1999’s When I Look in Your Eyes that became her game-changing crossover hit. Not only did it earn Krall her first Grammy Award, it was the first jazz disc in 25 years to be nominated for Album of the Year.
Given the constant swirl of music encompassing her practically from birth, it only followed that Krall would marry a musician. In her case, that music man is the equally eclectic, accomplished, and respected singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. At first blush it may seem an odd coupling—Krall a lilting jazz butterfly and Costello an acerbic singer with Buddy Holly glasses—but on closer examination, their aim is true. Costello, like Krall, is a passionate music savant and fountain of music knowledge. His career also spans many musical genres—including jazz leanings—and brave experiments, and his own roots grew firm from his father’s working-man’s music career.
Krall and Costello married in 2003 at the stately English manor of Elton John (who later named one of his touring pianos “Diana” in tribute to Krall). The personal union quickly birthed a professional collaboration, as they wrote songs together for 2004’s The Girl in the Other Room, Krall’s first album to feature original material. “I started writing when I was a student but didn’t really have the confidence to [pursue] lyric-writing in great depth,” she told USA Today ahead of the release. “[I’d] never done anything so personal.”
Krall admits to being shy onstage as well, and she may nervously fidget and speak ever-so-softly between songs. However, once her fingers stirringly strike the piano keys and her hushed, husky voice purrs into the microphone, she transfixes. “It’s a myth you can’t have intimacy at a large venue,” Krall asserts. “At Ravinia, you can.”
James Turano is a freelance writer and a former entertainment editor, feature writer, and columnist for national and local magazines and newspapers. He has written official programs for eight Elton John tours since 2003, and is also a Chicago radio personality and host, heard regularly on WGN Radio 720AM.