Life Was a Cabaret

Growing up in the mid-size city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Diana Krall wasn’t what you’d call a troublemaker. She hung out at her grandfather’s diner, went skiing with her sister in the winter, and absorbed her father’s love of jazz – listening voraciously to his collection of vintage stride, ragtime, and swing records. As a teenager, she went to just one rock concert, by Randy Bachman protégés Trooper, and was appalled by the pot smoking, beer drinking, and gum throwing. She’d never have tossed gum herself, not even at Trooper. But one Sunday shortly after she’d won a scholarship to study piano at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, the 15-year-old Diana did something that truly distressed her parents.

“I come home after hanging out with my friends,” Krall, now 34, recalls through elongated, north-of-the-border vowels. “And my dad’s standing there, shocked! He goes, ‘What the hell are ya doin’ calling Marian McPartland?’ I said, ‘How’d you know?’ ’ ‘Cause she just called you back!’ ” Figuring the host of NPR’s “Piano Jazz” was an ideal source for career advice, the young musician had gotten her number from New York City information and left a message: “Hi, my name is Diana Krall. Just wanted to talk … I’ve got this scholarship and I’m thinking about what I’m going to do.”

Though McPartland’s reply was tersely realistic – “I don’t know what I could possibly tell you from here” – it at least didn’t discourage her caller, who ultimately accepted the scholarship and headed east. (The two are now friends; the elder musician has no recollection of the exchange, though she’s since gotten an unlisted number.) Now about to release her fifth album, Krall has herself grown up into a deliciously understated pianist, with a femme-fatale alto perfectly suited to both updating standards and transforming more obscure tunes into instant classics. Her last two CDs spent more than a year each at the top of Billboard’s jazz chart; the more recent, 1997’s Love Scenes, has sold over 700,000 copies, and her label, Verve, has even higher hopes for the forthcoming When I Look in Your Eyes. Last summer, Krall played the Vancouver stop of the Lilith Fair tour, alongside Emmylou Harris, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, and Sarah McLachlan and in front of a crowd of 17,000. “There’s all these teenage girls up front, screamin’,” she says. “I’m goin’, ‘Holy shit! What’s goin’ on here?!’ It was great!” (It was also her first rock show since Trooper.)

Technically, Krall lives in New York these days. But on the rare occasion her relentless tour itinerary gives her a day or two in town, her schedule is a whirlwind of increasingly celebrity-ish obligations. Today, she’s had to bump her lunch up to the improbable hour of 11:30 to make room for a mid-afternoon “media training” session (“In case I go on Howard Stern, you know?”). As she tucks into a plate of mixed antipasti at Trattoria dell’ Arte, she looks across the street and offers that in June, her parents, whom she sees nearly monthly, will be coming to her headlining debut at Carnegie Hall. “You should hear my mother!” Krall laughs. “I had to tell her, ‘You can’t talk about Carnegie Hall anymore. It’s stressing me out.’ So now she calls it ‘C.H.’ “

Such success is, to say the least, unlikely for a cabaret performer. “When she was a child, her father played her Fats Waller records,” says Verve Music Group chairman Tommy LiPuma, who produced all but the first of Krall’s albums. “And then when she was a teenager, she had a Peter Frampton poster on her wall.” LiPuma attributes Krall’s broad appeal to her own appreciation for several decades’ worth of popular music. “When you turned on a radio station in the forties or fifties,” he adds by way of illustration, “you heard all kinds of music, from the Ink Spots to Charles Brown to Lester Young. There were no boundaries.” Which is not to say Krall lacks a style; it’s just a particularly catholic one. Love Scenes’ “Garden in the Rain,” for instance, was once a forgettable early-fifties pop number by the Four Aces. “It was almost comical,” says LiPuma. “But the song itself, the lyrics, were beautiful. She turned it into a ballad and brought out the best part of the song; she figured out how to make it her own.”

The C.H. gig is no anomaly: Krall has graduated from the intime nightclubs in which she got her start – and where she’s most easily able to personalize the songs in her repertoire. Happily, though, she’s adapted to her role as a big-theater player. Early in her career, Krall was able to transform sleepy settings like the Algonquin’s Oak Room into rollicking roadhouses. Now she’s developed a presence big enough to carry the hushed intimacy of her records to big halls. “I saw her open for Oscar Peterson at the Hollywood Bowl last year,” says LiPuma. “There must have been 15,000 people there; you could hear a pin drop.”

When she was preparing material for When I Look in Your Eyes, Krall listened intensively to João Gilberto’s Amoroso, a 1977 masterpiece, also produced by LiPuma, of gorgeous, subtly orchestrated bossa nova. And half of her new album’s twelve songs have the same syncopated feel (set by Russell Malone’s guitar) and lavish but muted orchestral backing. In a further nod to Amoroso, which features several Brazilian-flavored renditions of American standards, Krall’s new album opens with a haunting bossa nova take on Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

When I Look in Your Eyes is the first of Krall’s albums to feature drums, strings, vibes – in fact, any instrumentation beyond piano, guitar, and bass. The more elaborate arrangements have troubled some fans and journalists. ” ‘Why didn’t you just do the trio? It’s intimate and it’s nice and it worked,’ ” she says, echoing the inevitable criticisms a touch indignantly. “But it’s not like I have a chain saw in my band!”

Life Was a Cabaret