McIntosh Stories: Diana Krall Contemplates Love and Loss on ‘Turn Up the Quiet’

McIntosh Stories, produced in collaboration with McIntosh Labs, provide in-depth explorations of new albums by today’s best jazz artists. Purveyors of legendary home audio products, McIntosh Labs promotes a commitment to stunning high-definition audio and sophisticated design, bringing you closer to the music than ever before. These McIntosh Stories are designed to do the same, giving you an unparalleled look into the stories behind the music and the creative vision that went into the making of each album.

Every two-career household has its challenges. Those are only exacerbated when both careers involve a hectic schedule of touring the world, ambitious recording projects, press interviews and media appearances — all on top of raising a couple of kids. So Diana Krall was understandably excited one rainy day in early May to discover that her husband, rock star Elvis Costello, was working down the hall in the same Manhattan rehearsal studio where she was preparing for her upcoming tour.

With a busy schedule that will see her crisscrossing the States and Europe through most of the rest of the year, Krall was obviously relieved to grab a few seconds of unexpected domesticity where she could find it. Her densely-packed calendar shared space atop the piano with a sheaf of sheet music and a spreadsheet keeping track of the babysitting schedule for the couple’s 10-year-old twin sons.

“We had no idea,” she admitted with a chuckle after stealing a brief moment between interviews to pop in on Costello’s session. “I’ve never worked in the same building like this with him before, so it’s nice. It feels like the old Brill Building days. If only our children were here; that’s the only thing we’re missing at the moment.”

Given how much time she spends at a piano, it’s no wonder that Krall feels more at home sitting at one. She’s relieved to have a piano nearby during an interview, so that if she can’t quite make her point with words — which happens fairly often, as she regularly trails off or interrupts herself mid-sentence, a new or contradictory idea intruding before the last is completed — she can turn to the keyboard, where she’s more confidently eloquent.

“It’s hard for me to do interviews without a piano,” she shrugs, pivoting on the bench. “I can’t articulate. I don’t have to communicate much verbally to the musicians. How do you put swing and feel into words?”

“I’ve not been blessed with a very big range, I can’t play fast, I don’t have great chops, but I have a good feel and good time, and I can get to the story.”

On her latest album, Turn Up the Quiet (Verve), Krall makes her return to the familiar words of the Great American Songbook after two albums that ventured further afield: Wallflower found her singing pop-radio hits from the ’60s and ’70s by the likes of Bob Dylan, Elton John and The Eagles, slathered in David Foster’s syrupy orchestrations, while Glad Rag Doll featured jazz songs from the ’20s and ’30s learned from her father’s collection of vintage 78s.

Her father’s passing in late 2014, shortly before the release of Wallflower, was an influence on the hushed and intimate mood of Turn Up the Quiet, as was the bout of pneumonia that postponed that album’s release and Krall’s accompanying tour. The album took on an additional air of melancholy after the fact with the sudden death in March of Tommy LiPuma, a mentor throughout Krall’s career and the producer of the bulk of her albums. “The loss of Tommy has been absolutely devastating and unexpected, but we made a beautiful record together,” Krall says, still shaken months later. “We knew that and had the chance to say that to each other.”

The material itself doesn’t dwell on loss, however. Instead, the tunes seem to trace the arc of a love story from the swooning early enchantment of “Like Someone in Love” and “Isn’t It Romantic,” through the bewitched giddiness of “Moonglow” and “Blue Skies,” to the nocturnal reflection of “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” The result is an unexpectedly joyful and romantic album, albeit one tinged with the clear-eyed maturity of an artist in her early 50s. “I was coming out of a very sad time,” she explains. “But it’s nice when the music gives you a mirror and actually shows you what’s happening while you’re in it. It reveals happy and positive things, songs about being in love.”

As the songs took shape the musical approach also evolved from her initial intention to make a more lush orchestral date to three small ensembles: one a reunion of the trio that recorded 1997’s Love Scenes, with Christian McBride and Russell Malone; the second a quartet with guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist John Clayton Jr. and drummer Jeff Hamilton, all frequent collaborators; and finally an Americana-tinged quintet with versatile guitarist Marc Ribot, bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan, longtime Bob Dylan bassist Tony Garnier and drummer Karriem Riggins, a constant in Krall’s bands for 20 years.

In the transition from a more sweeping orchestral album to the relatively scaled-back session that Turn Up the Quiet became, one contribution that was unavoidably reduced was Alan Broadbent’s orchestral arrangements. Over Skype from Hamburg, Germany, though, Broadbent insists that such shifts are just part of the process. “My job was to enhance a feeling that was already there,” he explained. “It wasn’t trying to impose an arrangement on top of the music but to get inside of it, to color it a little and paint a quiet picture of what Diana was trying to express. You have to be willing to sublimate yourself into what exists.”

If her thriving career inevitably takes time away from her actual family, Krall has compensated by forming a close itinerant family of musicians and collaborators. Aside from the long tenure of many of the musicians on the album, she’s worked with Broadbent, whose light touch is still an important factor in the mood of Turn Up the Quiet, since she was 19 years old. LiPuma was a formative influence throughout her entire professional life, making his passing feel like the close of a chapter.

“Tommy just got it,” Krall says. “He knew what I was trying to do, and he said he was there to help me realize how to do that. His enthusiasm was key. He would sit right here [next to the piano] with the headphones on and look for the magic performance.”

That extended to the work that she and LiPuma did together in 2012 on Paul McCartney’s album Kisses on the Bottom, which Krall in 2015 called “the greatest experience of my life along with working with Tony Bennett and Ray Brown. I’ve worked with lots of different artists and Paul, besides being someone I respect as an artist, is such a great human being. I couldn’t express more what a joyful experience that was working with him and Tommy. He’s such a gentleman.”

“I just want to recapture the feeling of those Jimmy Rowles/Billie Holiday or Ben Webster/Teddy Wilson records, the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ella and Louis — those tempos. I still have youth in me that just wants to swing and hit hard, but I’m not afraid to be relaxed. I see the wonder in that.”

It was another mentor, bassist Ray Brown, who posthumously helped to shape Turn Up the Quiet. Krall was listening to old cassette tapes of the lessons she took with Brown while in her early 20s, and an offhand piece of advice leaped out at her. “He just said, ‘Play something you’re comfortable with,’ and he started playing with me. I’m not really a planner, so that was the only concept I had for this record: to relax and feel comfortable with everything.”

The gently swinging version of “Blue Skies” with McBride and Malone fuses the Irving Berlin standard with Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” (The iconic pianist seems to have been on McBride’s mind that day, as “Like Someone in Love” opens with a quote from “Rhythm-a-Ning.”) Ribot and Duncan evoke the Reinhardt/Grappelli tandem on “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You),” while Krall and Clayton celebrate their 25-plus-year relationship on a buoyantly intimate “No Moon At All.”

The album’s surprising highlight, though, is a darkly romantic take on “Sway,” a song that — in versions by Dean Martin and Julie London — always seemed best suited for a suburban cocktail party during the height of the bossa nova craze. In Krall’s rendition it’s utterly transformed into a smoldering tango. Listening to the piece, it’s easy to picture Krall lost in a passionate reverie, head tilted back, eyes closed, swaying slowly to the music. It’s almost hard to imagine it being created in the relatively sterile environment of a recording studio, but Krall waved off any suggestion of that being a challenge. “That’s what I do,” she says simply. “I’ve not been blessed with a very big range, I can’t play fast, I don’t have great chops, but I have a good feel and good time, and I can get to the story.”

Those stories can come from any number of places. Wallflower may have been particularly unexpected, culled from radio hits that were popular during her high school days and rendered in a decidedly non-jazz fashion, but Krall has always peppered her sets with pieces from outside the standard repertoire. At the Academy of Music in Philadelphia this summer, the set list interspersed songs by Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell with Irving Berlin and Jobim classics.

She admits to being defensive about Wallflower for a time, and she took issue with the detractors who pointed out the lack of jazz feeling or her own piano playing on the album —  which she insists was all by design. “It wasn’t a jazz record, and I never said it was.” At the time of the Wallflower tour, she expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “I didn’t set out to make these songs into new jazz standards; I just wanted to interpret them the way they were originally written and recorded, just with a different vibe.” While those tunes may themselves be decades-old classics by this point, they still may take a large portion of Krall’s audience by surprise. Overheard at the Academy of Music, one audience member tried to bring her white-haired companion up to speed, reading off names like Mitchell and Costello to blank stares until mentioning that one of Krall’s mentors was the late Rosemary Clooney. “Now, that name I know,” the woman asserted.

Krall readily admits that her tastes may skew a bit more traditional than some of her contemporaries. “Maybe where I am right now in my life, I want to play more relaxed tempos,” she says. “Ray Brown used to call them ‘old man tempos.’ But it’s not about a demographic or being nostalgic for me. I just want to recapture the feeling of those Jimmy Rowles/Billie Holiday or Ben Webster/Teddy Wilson records, the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ella and Louis — those tempos. I still have youth in me that just wants to swing and hit hard, but I’m not afraid to be relaxed. I see the wonder in that.”

Broadbent is keen to emphasize that aspect of Krall’s artistry. Having recently had the rare opportunity to watch a performance from the audience rather than the conductor’s podium, he noted the effect that Krall’s time had on the enthralled crowd. “She has a deep, secret relationship with jazz time that not too many people talk about,” he says. “She learned through Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong about the feeling that results when she places a phrase or a note within the beat. The minute she does that, it’s a very visceral reaction in the audience. They feel this special thing; besides her beauty, besides her playing, there’s that inner propulsion that is real jazz, and that’s her essence.”

The album’s title, borrowed from the lyrics of Ivan Lins’ classic “Love Dance,” suggests a quiet beyond mere silence — an amplification of stillness, an intensity akin to meditation. Despite being shared with a Geoffrey Keezer album on which she appears (and which had her rushing to get Keezer’s blessing once she realized it), Krall felt the sentiment was a perfect tonic for our hectic and confrontational times.

“I made the record before the election, but there was still so much being said all the time. It’s ‘Breaking News! Breaking News!’ every five minutes. So I think we need a break, to have a little laugh and a little romance, light some candles. Not shut the door and refuse to deal with it, but just get away from it for a minute because it’s always there. There’s so much to be upset about; you could be doing that all the time, but there are other things in life.”

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