The Importance of Being Oscar
Diana Krall talks about her mentor, her music, and being a mommy.
By Michael Roberts
“Sorry I’m late,” says Diana Krall. “I was busy being mommy.”
These days, Krall is busy with both kids and career. Her sultry image, established for many fans by the soft-focus glamour shot on the cover of her 1997 smash Love Scenes, was retouched in a major way on December 6, 2006, when she gave birth to twin sons Dexter and Frank. After that kind of life-changing event, many performers would step out of the limelight for a year or two. Not Krall.
She spent much of this summer on an extended tour, with Dexter and Frank in tow. In addition, she helped assemble The Very Best of Diana Krall, a compilation drawn from a catalog that has grown to 10 full-length albums released since 1993 (see page 36).
And she’s hard at work on a new recording that will likely include contributions by longtime collaborators, including Claus Ogerman, who arranged and conducted the orchestra heard on her 2001 offering The Look of Love.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Krall reflects on early inspirations, the album that led to one of her most significant creative breakthroughs, the challenges of celebrity (which have only grown more acute since she married singer-songwriter Elvis Costello in 2003), the fan favorite she resists performing these days, and her aptitude for singing sad songs even though she’s never been happier.
Still, she’s most energized when talking about pianist Oscar Peterson, whom she lauds in a commercial for Lexus…
JAZZIZ: Your Lexus commercial is just as much a commercial for Oscar Peterson…
Diana Krall: I was pleased working with the people at Lexus – because they didn’t tell me anything. They didn’t direct, other than to ask, “What is it you want to do?”
They said, “We’d like you to be sitting and listening to the music system, and you pick the music. We’ll get permission. Then you just share your thoughts naturally and we’ll film it and we’ll make it into something.” So I was really happy that I was able to just recall a very true memory of being at the Orpheum when I was 15 years old. My mom made me a satin blue jacket to hear Oscar Peterson with Ella Fitzgerald there. He was my hero, and the piece in the Lexus commercial was “Night Train” – and that was the reason I wanted to play jazz. I think in my high school yearbook, I wrote that my goal in life was to be like Oscar Peterson…
That’s not the typical high schooler’s dream.
No, everybody else’s went, “I want to be like Elvis Costello!” [Laughs.] I kind of got the last laugh there, didn’t I? But actually, maybe it wasn’t to be like Oscar Peterson. I could never be like Oscar Peterson. Maybe it was to meet Oscar Peterson. But that was a pretty wonderful, outrageous idea to have at that time, as a young woman in 1977 or something like that.
It seems very clear from the commercial that hearing his music instantly transports you back to that time and place. Is that true?
Oh, I can do it in seconds, and I do quite often. Just the sound of Ray Brown’s bass solo. In The Girl in the Other Room, there was a press photo of me holding the album cover itself – sitting on the floor near my hi-fi in my home in British Columbia. I have all my Oscar Peterson LPs, and just the other day, we were all trying to remember how to play “Chicago,” and we were failing miserably. [Laughs.] There’ll be periods when I listen to Oscar Peterson every day. It’s just part of my being, since I was a little girl. And seeing him in concert was something else.
Can you put your finger on what it is about his music that connects so deeply with you?
It’s the swing. It’s the feel. It’s the intensity. If you listen to “Band Call,” there’s four bars that I rewind maybe 25 times, where Ray Brown just holds this note. I can sing the whole thing. It’s unbelievable, the feeling I get from that.
Sometimes I’ll put on “Chicago” from the London House Sessions, and I’ll just play along with it, and I’ll have this intense smile on my face. And I still do that. I’ll put my iPod on and play along with those records, and the sense of utter joy that comes from it is powerful enough in itself. But put on top of that the incredible technical ability everyone shows, and it’s just unbelievable. There’s all this intensity and joy and swing and feel and emotion, and then there’s chops like no other.
To be able to emotionally connect with an audience that deeply and have the chops to do it … The only other person I know who can do that of my peers is Christian McBride. He has that same thing. It’s so natural and so joyful all the time, and just incredible from a technical standpoint. That’s something I think is important for young artists who spend hours and hours practicing technique to understand. To be able to connect on an emotional level takes years and years of experience.
Just having the technical facility alone is not nearly enough…
No, it’s not. And I’ve never had any chops. I just go totally on the other side – totally on emotion and intuition and swing and feel. I don’t have any chops vocally or that kind of technical facility.
There are literally thousands of people who would disagree with that statement.
It’s true! I do have a good feel and I do have good time. And I’m okay with that. You weren’t looking for Billie Holiday to sing like Sarah Vaughan. She sang like Billie Holiday. But Oscar has all of that.
You mentioned your early wish to meet Oscar Peterson, and when a lot of people meet their heroes, it’s a disappointment. That obviously wasn’t the case with you. When did that experience take place?
I met him when I was first starting out. It must be 10 years ago now, when I first did Love Scenes. I performed with Tony Bennett, and Oscar was in the wings. I remember because his daughter, Celine, was very little, and she’s 15 now. I met him there, and then I don’t think I really met him again until the last couple of years. We’ve become quite close.
He wrote an online journal about the celebration where he was honored with a Canadian stamp, and he talked about how meaningful it was having you and Elvis there. I gather it was meaningful for you as well.
It was mind-blowing. We did it at a bookstore, I think, and Elvis had written lyrics to “When Summer Comes.” It was right after [bassist] Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen had died, and I think Niels had talked to Oscar about the possibility of me writing lyrics to it. So Elvis wrote them, and I played it for Oscar, and it was an amazing event honoring him for his 80th birthday.
And then we went to the house afterward for a party, and we sat with Oscar. We listened to some records – we listened to a record he chose where he was playing on it with “R.B.,” as he would say: “Your friend, R.B.” He’d be talking about R.B. and Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. And I was like, “Oscar, I’ve never sat with you listening to you before.” It was just extraordinary.
We looked at some pictures and just hung out. And after dinner, he said, “Hey, Di, you want to go down and play the box?” And I thought, “Please, God, no. This isn’t happening to me.” But I thought, just put your ego and insecurity and all that stuff aside and enjoy this. So we went downstairs and I played piano for him, which was just the worst and best thing that could ever happen to you in your whole life. [Laughs.] And then I relaxed and thought, whatever. We started playing Nat Cole tunes, and he played, and then Elvis played and sang. It was just like a family gathering, except it was Oscar Peterson.
I think we left at two o’clock in the morning. Elvis and I woke up the next morning, and I looked at him and said, “Did that really happen?” We just couldn’t believe it. And then, in October of last year, he came to my concert, and we just played for him, the whole concert. It was like, “You’re all here, and that’s nice, but we’re just playing for Oscar Peterson tonight.” And then he came to one of my concerts in July, and afterward, we hung out backstage, and John Clayton played some bass for him. It was amazing. He was so full of compliments and just loving hanging out with the musicians. And that day, we went to his house for tea, and I spent the afternoon with him and his family. They had this little lunch for me and the boys, and he held my babies, and that was just heartbreaking. I thought, “I can’t believe my hero is holding my children.” He was so tender with the boys. It was amazing, and they just loved him.
He sounds like someone whose love of the music has never faded.
Oh yeah. And when I listen to myself telling about this, it doesn’t have anything to do with his ability to do this or analyzing that. We all know how great Oscar Peterson is. I feel a bit funny sharing such a personal account. It’s just that it’s my hero, and having the chance to spend time with him and learn from him and honor him and ask him questions about music and about the history, and to sit with him and hang and just talk is extraordinary. If there are young people reading magazines, you should go and search out the Hank Joneses of the world, and the Sonny Rollinses. Knock on their door and ask them questions. It’s an extraordinary experience to be able to learn and be inspired by someone like Oscar, both personally and artistically.
You got the chance to do both of those things early on with Ray Brown, too.
Ray Brown was probably the most important musical figure for me outside of my dad – him and Jimmy Rowles. It was pretty much about Jimmy Rowles and Ray Brown, and vocally, for me, it was Rosemary Clooney.
You’ve also had a very long-term musical relationship with John Clayton, who you just mentioned, and Jeff Hamilton…
Since I was 19!
At this point, is the musical connection between the three of you like ESP?
It’s a continued mentorship, I would say. I still sometimes feel like that 19 year old: “What do I do now?” And at other times, I don’t feel like the student. It’s a very familial relationship, for sure. And it’s pretty incredible that I’ve been admiring them since I was 19 years old, and came to L.A. to study with them, and I worked with them all this summer. It’s been a 20-year relationship that continues to be inspiring. We talk about everything – about the state of the music and what we can do for young artists, to help them. Because we are now the older musicians.
Do you look upon yourself as an elder stateswoman?
No, I do not! I don’t put myself in that position. I feel like the student who’s struggling to find the right B-flat chord [laughs].
Yet it seems important to you that you help those who are coming up to recognize what’s important about the music.
If they ask for it, yeah. I’m not going out and making statements or anything like that. If asked, yeah.
When you were in that position, you clearly did a lot of asking, and that paid dividends on your early albums.
You mean the early, funny ones?
Right. But even on your first album, there are songs where you sound mature beyond your years.
Well, I’ve probably always been tortured, you know. [Laughs] I grew up on Vancouver Island, and in high school, everybody was listening to pop music, as was I. But I was also listening to Fats Waller and Bing Crosby and Ruth Etting and Annette Hanshaw and early Bix Beiderbecke recordings and a lot of other things in my room.
I can still remember being 15 and listening to Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition and Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction and all these things and thinking, “What the hell am I going to do with all of this?” [Laughs.] Keith Jarrett’s Standards had come out, and all of those records, and I was completely overwhelmed with all of this stuff I wanted to do – and nothing has changed. I’m listening to Joni and Bob Dylan and thinking, “What the hell am I going to do with all this?” But you just carry on. You just have to put pen to paper. Otherwise, you don’t do anything. So, to answer your question, I probably always knew I had a passion for it, to the point where it was very intense.
The Nat Cole album, All For You, really seemed to mark a transition for you. Did you feel like something important came together for you on that disc?
Oh yeah. I owe a lot to Mary Ann Topper and Andre Menard with the Montreal Jazz Festival for giving me the opportunity to play for a week at a club called Just For Laughs. We opened for Benny Green with just a trio – with Paul Keller and Russell Malone – and a big picture of Nat Cole. A tribute to Nat Cole was the theme, and it got me focused on his music. All of a sudden, I went, “Oh! I would like to do this. This works for me.” It opened up a whole other thing for me, because that’s when guitar entered in, and I still enjoy that format. That was a big turning point for me artistically, and for my career, too.
After that, and after the huge success of the albums that followed, you attained a level of celebrity. How long did it take you to adapt to that?
Until I was 42. [Laughs.] Until, like, last week. No, I’m not comfortable with it. I’m more comfortable than I was. I’m more relaxed about it. But I never expected to have a career like this, and I still don’t. I recently played at this winery in Washington state where it was light out, and I had to go through all of the crowd in a car to get to the stage, and I actually got really nervous, because there were so many people. I thought, “Oh my God. What am I going to do? How am I going to be good enough to please all these people?” It was a little bit overwhelming.
I don’t mean to sound precious, but usually when I go onstage, it’s dark out there, and I can’t see anybody. [Laughs.] I felt very blessed. And I loved that tour, because I didn’t have an agenda, I didn’t have a record I was promoting. It was wonderful to get onstage and play whatever I wanted to play – and I think I’ll probably spend the rest of my days with that kind of attitude. I have so much repertoire. I’m just going to choose from everything and just play what I feel like. And it ends up being this sort of mish-mash of Nat Cole and Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello and Cole Porter. I’ve actually been playing a lot of older material right now, and I’ve really enjoyed it, even though I’m in a very forward-looking place right now. I’m living very much in the moment.
Does that forward-looking mentality make the idea of a greatest hits album hard for you to grasp?
Yeah. But it was good for me to look back on things. I listened to some things where I thought, “That was a lot better than I thought it was,” or “I was in a different place there.” It was interesting.
Were there also moments when you listened to an older song and thought, “That’s not very good,” or “That doesn’t work for me”?
I only have one song in my whole career that I’ve never performed live since I recorded it, and that I knew wasn’t right for me. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the validity of the song. It’s a great song by a great composer. It’s just not for me. I think that’s the only song I’ve done in my whole career that’s on my own work where it doesn’t suit me.
Is that something you feel like sharing?
Not really. But it’s not “Peel Me a Grape,” even though that’s something I can’t sing right now. I kind of giggle when people ask me for it. A friend of mine said to me, “You owe it to the public to sing those tunes! They buy your records! They’ve made your career!” But I just can’t do it, honestly. So I’ll put it on the back burner for a while. I performed “Peel Me a Grape” a couple of times, and it was fun- but that’s just not where my head is. I can’t really do it.
As you said, you’ve got such a large repertoire. You can just say to yourself, “In five years, I may feel like peeling a grape again. I don’t need to peel one today.”
Exactly, and I’ve said that to audiences. I’ve said, “I’m just not there right now. But I have this other thing you might like.” And audiences have been very understanding. Because, looking back, the last five years were about tremendous change for me. I really don’t want to talk about it in depth. But I look at my first date in Calgary-Alberta, and I’d just come off the success of The Look of Love, and that image was kind of stuck in people’s heads. And I walked onstage and played all originals except for a couple of tunes. No “Peel Me a Grape,” nothing really light-hearted. I was making political statements.
It was where I was at. And I looked at this audience, and they went with me. And I felt like, “How lucky am I to have such a loyal audience.” Not that the music I was doing was bad. It just had never been heard before. The Girl in the Other Room had been out for, like, four days. And how trusting I was of the audience and how generous they were with me. I don’t mean this in a gratuitous way. But I have a really loyal audience. They’ve been tremendous.
Have you always had an audience that was willing to listen first rather than making a knee-jerk reaction?
I think so. I never really thought about that until I went back and started listening to a lot of things and thinking about how lucky I’ve been to be able to try different things and go different directions. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with my husband – because he’s always been true to his artistic integrity and where he needs to go with that.
Where are you headed next?
Oh boy. Call me at 3 a.m., when I’m up with the next idea. I’ve got about 30 tunes I’m working on.
Are they standards? More contemporary songs?
Yeah, more contemporary songs – from the ’60s. [Laughs.] I’m in the middle of it right now, so I don’t really want to talk about it too much. But I’ll probably work with Claus Ogerman again, which is pretty exciting for me.
And you’ve got your twins, which is pretty exciting as well.
They’re great. They took their first flight when they were 3 months old and went on tour with me when they were 6 months old. And the wheels on the bus really do go ’round and ’round [laughs]. They’re doing really well.
And how are you doing?
I’m doing great. I’m very happy about my career and the direction I’m going. I’ve got a fantastic husband and fantastic kids. Life is very good at the moment.
It sounds like the next album isn’t going to be a blues album…
Oh, I can still sing tortured love songs. [Laughs.] I’m going back there, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll still be singing the tortured ballads. But that’s okay.
Must be nice to sing those tortured ballads and then step offstage and have the torture stop.
Yeah [laughs]. You draw on your experiences. But right now, I’m enjoying life so much.