Only Trust Your Heart
For Diana Krall '83, the love of the music guides her course
It is rare when a jazz artist reaches an audience the size of the one that Diana Krall has reached. Four short years ago, the Grammy-nominated vocalist/pianist was playing small, sometimes empty clubs in New York and Boston. These days she can be found on the stages of the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, and other prestigious concert venues throughout the United States and Canada and is steadily gaining a following in Europe and Japan.
Krall's first GRP recording Only Trust Your Heart (1995) started her breakout. Studio veteran Tommy LiPuma produced that disc, which reached the top 10 on the Billboard jazz charts. There is obviously good musical chemistry between Krall and LiPuma. The three subsequent albums they have collaborated on--All for You (1996), Love Scenes (1997), and When I Look in Your Eyes (1999)--have put Krall on the charts and in the public eye.
Krall's Love Scenes CD maintained the number-one spot on the Billboard jazz chart in three calendar years and has sold nearly a million copies worldwide. As of this writing, When I Look in Your Eyes was at the number-one spot on the jazz charts and sales were approaching the 250,000 mark. Fueled by support from Verve/GRP and a dizzying schedule of summer and fall concert appearances, the new disc may well reach the same lofty heights as Love Scenes.
One of the most compelling qualities of the music industry is the seemingly random nature of what accounts for a new sound coming into vogue or the resurgence of interest in an older style. Who would have predicted that a young jazz artist performing chestnuts from the great American songbook (some of them over 60 years old) would become a top-seller and a box-office draw with a crossover audience? Among the obvious factors linked to Krall's success are her sultry alto voice, polished piano style, engaging stage presence, and glamorous image. The bottom line is that she is producing great music from the heart and not losing any sleep trying to figure out how come what she does is clicking.
Krall's career has been boosted by her work for film and television. She performed the end title song for Clint Eastwood's film True Crime, and is heard on the soundtracks to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and At First Sight. Additionally, she has played twice on the TV show "Melrose Place." Krall has also appeared as a guest on records by such diverse artists as Benny Carter, the Chieftains, Dave Grusin, Toots Thielemans, and Rosemary Clooney.
Her own meticulously crafted recordings often showcase her cool vocal and piano work in trio and quartet formats. On the latest album, she departed from guitar/bass/piano instrumentation of her touring band by adding percussion on some selections and an orchestra playing Johnny Mandel's charts on seven cuts. The record also reveals Krall's remarkable knack for making the vintage standards she sings sound shiny and new while never straying outside the parameters of traditional jazz style. A case in point is her sensuous ballad/bossa treatment of the Cole Porter classic "I've Got You under My Skin."
Despite lots of media attention and her growing celebrity status, music is the career focus for Krall. Growing up in Nanaimo, British Columbia, she had the sounds of jazz and other music in her ears from a young age. She credits family members and her high school band director Bryan Stovell with helping to set her musical sights on jazz. She was playing gigs at 15, and by 17, she won a Berklee scholarship. After Berklee, she continued studying privately with Ray Brown, Alan Broadbent, and Jimmy Rowles in Los Angeles.
She released her first album Stepping Out in 1993 for the Justin Time label before signing with GRP the next year. Things opened up considerably after she received Grammy nominations for her GRP All for You and Love Scenes albums. While the types of places she now plays and the size of her audience have changed radically since her first gigs in Canada, her love for the music has stayed the same. For Diana, trusting only what's in her heart has made everything else fall into place.
How did you start out in music?
I began playing piano when I was four. There was always music in the house. My father plays jazz piano and is a record collector. He listened to everything from Fats Waller to Creedence Clearwater Revival. I had a good family background and good teachers. When I got into high school, I had a great band director who was a jazz bassist. He started giving me Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane records.
Is it true that you started to take singing seriously after some prodding from your Berklee piano teacher Ray Santisi?
It's true. In my piano lessons, he would play and I would sing and we'd talk about tunes. That was a long time ago. I was probably only 17 years old.
I used to listen to singers at home as much as I listened to piano players. I didn't really start singing professionally until 1987 or 88. Before that time, I would sing privately and try things, but I wasn't that confident. I would get gigs where they wanted me to sing, but I would do as little as possible, just enough to keep the gig.
After Berklee, when you were trying to get established in New York, you commuted to gigs in Boston. How did the pieces fall into place for you to go from playing some pretty empty clubs to the concert halls that you are doing now?
Perseverance was one thing. I was fortunate enough to make a demo tape with [bassist] John Clayton and [drummer] Jeff Hamilton--they were my mentors. I sent that around and got a record deal with the Justin Time label in Canada, but the record wasn't distributed in the United States. I played a showcase at the Blue Note club in New York on a Monday night in hopes of getting a licensing deal. Instead, I got an offer to sign with GRP Records.
Did things start to open up as soon as you signed with GRP in 1994?
It was a slow, steady build. I was still commuting back and forth to Boston until 1996. All for You was the album that started making some noise. Jazz Tree booked me on a rising star tour--a heavy touring schedule. We weren't playing to full houses at first, but it started to pick up once that record got nominated for a Grammy.
Did you get the idea for your piano, guitar, and bass trio from the trios of the early 1960s?
I think I have all of the old Poll Winners albums with Barney Kessell, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne. I heard Triple Treat with Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, and Monty Alexander. I had grown up listening to Nat Cole and Page Calvin; there were a lot of guitar trios after Nat Cole's success with his trio. In Boston, I started working with bassist Whit Brown and either Grey Sargent or John Wheatly on guitar. I worked for a couple of years in that setting prior to recording All for You and working with [guitarist] Russell Malone. I discovered that I really liked that format.
On the recordings, you and Malone chose your notes so carefully, never overplaying in your solos. Has that always been part of your aesthetic?
Well, playing too many notes is part of youth. That's when you want to play hard and fast and show that you have chops. Russell and Christian McBride are a couple of players I have worked with who have incredible chops, but they are able to express themselves emotionally in the music and touch you. They know when to use technique and when not to. Russell can burn the house down, but he also understands the challenge of playing pretty. It is confidence that comes after playing a lot of music.
Some of your renditions of standards reveal a very different side of the tunes. Who does the arranging?
Basically, I do all of the arranging, but things develop over the course of performing the music with my group. I will come up with the initial idea for an arrangement, and then together we will make it unique.
Your version of "I've Got You under My Skin" is radically different from the way most people play that song.
Russell Malone, [bassist] Ben Wolfe, and I came up with that. I wanted to play it as a ballad, and then Russell wanted to try it as a bossa nova. Ben did some percussion on the bass, and it just evolved. When you are on the road with people for so long, you go to sound check and work things out. The music is still evolving.
For the latest album, I had ideas for the introduction on "Pick Yourself Up." I wanted to put some voicings in that sounded like Gil Evans. I called John Clayton, who is one of my best friends and is still my mentor, and he helped me to realize my ideas. He said things like, try this note here instead of that one; he is a great arranger. I wanted to be careful because I would be working with Johnny Mandel for the record. I like to have the concepts in mind, but I am also open to contributions by other musicians because they might know something that I don't. When someone like [drummer] Lewis Nash comes in, I am not going to tell him exactly how to play. I want to see what a player like that is going to do. About 99 percent of the time, it is the right thing and more than what I wanted in the first place.
Have you ever tried to write your own material?
I am writing, but I am not ready to put it out in public yet. I have been influenced by Ahmad Jamal, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane. They made a lot of records where they interpreted standards. There is a lot to the art of interpretation. I get to be a lyric interpreter--a storyteller--and a jazz pianist playing standards in my own way.
You have said that working with Clint Eastwood on his song "Why Should I Care" for the soundtrack of True Crime was a highlight. How did he guide you in the interpretation of that song?
He directed me like he would an actor. He told me the story and told me how he wanted me to phrase some things. I made a mistake on the melody, and he caught it. He's got great ears.
When you headlined at Carnegie Hall on June 23, did you feel anxious about the history of playing there, you know, "getting to Carnegie Hall?"
It was only nerve-wracking beforehand because once you get onto the bandstand, whether you are playing at Carnegie Hall or Joe's Bar and Grill, the only thing you are thinking about is the music. That is what it is all about.
In what direction do you see yourself going in the future?
Right now, it's wherever the wind takes me. I worked on another soundtrack that has a Brazilian flavor [Amy Irving's upcoming film Bossa Nova]. I am so in love with the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joáo Gilberto, and the beauty of that music. I am studying and getting deeper into it. I like doing soundtracks.
Is that an avenue that you would like to see open up?
I hope that it will. I'd love to do something for an animated film in the style of the old classic Lady and the Tramp. They used a lot of jazz for the Disney films with Louis Prima and Peggy Lee. Right now, the music and the films are so intense. It would be fun to do something with a jazz score and do a voice-over on a film for kids.
You have said that you don't want to be categorized as a jazz diva. What did you mean by that?
I have been asked that so many times. I was probably just tired of answering the question when I said that. I don't have time to sit down and analyze whether I am this or that. I just do what I do. If you want to put a label on it, I play jazz piano and sing songs. I remember Dave McKenna calling himself a saloon piano player, and I used to think, that's one hell of a saloon piano player! He is one of my favorite pianists and seems to know every tune ever written. It is just about music.
I have so-called jazz roots, and I respect the tradition and the people that came before me, like Ella Fitzgerald. I also have respect for my peers, like Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, and Nnenna Freelon. If I scat, does that make me a jazz vocalist or is Shirley Horn not a jazz vocalist because she doesn't scat? To me, that's a little bit of sitting around, fiddling with your navel. Nat Cole used to scat on the early stuff, but when I listen to a Nat Cole record, I don't sit around and ponder whether he was a jazz artist or not. I know what he was.
He seemed to make a conscious break from being known just as a jazz musician because he felt that if he didn't go in a more popular vein, he would always be playing in bars.
I have read what he said about it. That was his choice. He made a lot of records. Look at the Mosaic boxed set or the After Midnight Sessions. He was a great jazz pianist and did great records. Some of them leaned toward country and western and others toward Spanish stuff. At least he did what he wanted to do. It is often said that he was pushed into doing that, but I don't think he was. I think he just made his decision. What matters most is that he made a contribution. Without him, I wouldn't be doing what I am doing.
Most people would tell young people aspiring to have a jazz career today that it will be very hard. What is your take on that?
If you love what you are doing, there is no question that that is what you have to do. You don't go into this to be a pop star; it is for the love of the music. Be serious and curious about what you do, and seek out those who will inspire you. They will take you seriously and help you out.
Has seeing your record sales soar and the great interest in your live shows given you the feeling that you have arrived as an artist?
Have I arrived? All I know is that I am trying to get up in the morning to go to the gym and trying to practice. I'm working on music and having a very intense and great time doing it. The best part is having my family celebrate with me. I have taken them out on the road.
It makes me happy that I can play music that I love to play. I keep feeling inspired, and I'm meeting great people. I was told about this a long time ago, and I don't take it for granted. I just feel very lucky that I get to play this music.