Diana Krall lives on a high note with a new album and upcoming Honolulu performances

Although jazz pianist and vocalist Diana Krall is known for her sure, delicate touch on a whole range of popular music, the one thing she’s not singing these days is the blues.

“Life is fantastic for me!” enthuses Krall. “I’ve just finished a record, I’m working with Barbra Streisand on her new record, I’ve got two beautiful children, I have a great husband. I live in Vancouver, I’m busy, I’m enjoying my life, and life couldn’t be better! Happier than I’ve ever been my whole life.”

Krall’s new album, Quiet Nights, is already in the can, waiting to make a splash this spring, when she’ll also be performing with the Honolulu Symphony Pops in what’s sure to be one of the hottest tickets of the season.

Born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, directly across the Georgia Strait from Vancouver, Krall says her home-town was “pulp, paper and fishing.” Krall played the piano when she was 4 years old, and began sitting in with Vancouver Island jazz groups while still in high school.

“My father collected 78 (rpm) records, and I grew up with a love of jazz music in my family, and I had a great music program in my school,” Krall says. “My music teacher was a jazz musician. Dinah Washington was certainly a big influence, but I grew up listening to Fats Waller and Nat King Cole and early Bing Crosby.”

At 17, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival awarded her a scholarship to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. There, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jeff Hamilton were wowed by her prowess at the keyboard and lobbied Krall to relocate to Los Angeles to study with Jimmy Rowles, who had famously accompanied Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee.

Rowles convinced Krall to try something new – singing.

“I started out as a piano player and didn’t start singing until I was about 26,” says Krall. “Pretty old to start singing! It was just a natural thing.”

Krall’s reputation grew as she moved to New York and played at small clubs, and in 1993 she released her first album, Stepping Out. Since then, Krall has been nominated for Grammy awards eight times, winning twice.

Family has always been important to Krall, and there was a rough patch when her mother, Adella, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Hawaii was one of the places they escaped to when her mother was ill.

“It’s one of the places I took my mom after she had a bone-marrow transplant, and with my father,” she says. “Very familial, happy times.”

Krall’s mother died in 2002, just a few months after jazz bassist Brown and singer Rosemary Clooney also passed away. Both had been mentors to Krall.

Krall isn’t the only one in her musical family with links to the Islands.

“My husband did this video called What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding, and half of it was filmed in Stanley Park (in Vancouver) and half of it was filmed in Hawaii,” she says. “He never knew when he was 24 doing the video he’d be living in Vancouver and going on vacations in Hawaii!”

Krall’s husband is British musician Elvis Costello, a songwriter whose literate, punchy tunes have ranged from protopunk raveups to gorgeous ballads. Perhaps because of Costello’s influence, Krall recently began to write her own songs. Married in 2003 at Elton John’s estate outside London, the couple had twin sons – Dexter Henry Lorcan and Frank Harlan James – in 2006.

Something of a national treasure in Canada, Krall has been awarded both the Order of British Columbia and Officer of the Order of Canada, so she is properly addressed as Diana Krall, OC, OBC. Established as a major artist, she moved back to British Columbia. Vancouver, a bustling, multiethnic, seacoast city with a lively arts scene, could be a sister city to Honolulu, “with the big mountains behind and the sea,” notes Krall. “It’s similar to Rio too, I guess, you might say – if you’ve ever been to Rio.”

Not yet, but Krall’s next album will likely do wonders for tourism in Rio. That’s because it reinvigorates the samba and bossa nova beats that put Rio on the map. Quiet Nights just might make Diana Krall a major song stylist in the mainstream of American pop culture, a lateral move from her current position as a well-respected jazz pianist and singer.

Call her a “keyboardist,” and Krall will firmly correct you. “I’m a pianist! I only play acoustic piano,” she says. “Keyboardist” according to Krall, brings to mind ’80s hairbands with keyboards slung around their necks like cigarette trays and “I’d have to wear my miniskirt! My rocker period,” she says, amused.

Focused on performing, Krall is an artist who’s not a technogeek about gear. “I’m a Steinway artist,” she sums up, having her own sound man who travels with her to make sure everything is properly tuned.

“A small nightclub is a lot different than playing in the Waikiki Shell,” she says. “More amplification, I guess, and that’s up to the sound guy. But, actually, I treat a big room the same way I treat a small room. I create intimacy. It’s a mindset – it’s not really about amplification or projection; it’s about creating intimacy so you feel like you’re in a small club. That’s my intention.”

Krall’s magic will likely turn Blaisdell Concert Hall into the symphonic equivalent of a late-night jazz dive. The magic works both ways, however.

“The orchestra there is very good, and the last concert there was in – the (Waikiki) Shell? – and it was pouring rain, but we all had a great time anyways,” she recalls. “Hawaii is my favorite, favorite place – one of my favorite places in the whole world … I just can’t wait, because I’m going to bring my family. Also, I love playing with the Honolulu Symphony – Matt Catingub has been a favorite of mine for years. It’s just a very special place.”

Quiet Nights

Get a sneak peek at Diana Krall’s latest release

HILuxury recently got an exclusive listen to Diana Krall’s upcoming Quiet Nights album, due to be released in March.

The album is a moody, sexy and intimate recasting of classic Brazilian bossa nova rhythms. The 10-song album includes three tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim, including a gender-switched Girl From Ipanema, and samba-reborn standards like Burt Bacharach’s Walk On By, which could be a breakout hit. Krall’s sensitive reading of the lyrics makes Dionne Warwick’s ’60s version yesterday’s news.

“It’s not coy. It’s not ‘peel me a grape,’ little girl stuff,” Krall says. “I feel this album’s very womanly – like you’re lying next to your lover in bed, whispering this in their ear.”

Krall’s stint in Rio de Janeiro to shoot concert footage for a new DVD became the basis for the creative direction of Quiet Nights.

“I was inspired to do this record because of my trip last year to Brazil,” says Krall. “Then I just kept going back and found that everywhere you go you still hear the sounds of Jobim and bossa nova.”

Producer Tommy LiPuma, who has helmed most of Krall’s recordings, talked arranger Claus Ogerman out of retirement for the album. Ogerman, who last worked with Krall in 2001, was the man responsible for the first wave of bossa nova recordings to hit our shore, including Stan Getz’ trademark saxophone stylings in the early ’60s.

Of working with Ogerman, Krall says, “Claus told me, ‘It’s a gloomy string orgy’ – he has a very dry sense of humor. There was a lot of him saying, ‘I’ve written these things a hundred times, now I’m gonna really do something crazy.’ And some of the arrangements he did are pretty wild.

“When we did Walk On By, he said ‘Ja, I think this is gonna be good.’ And then we listened to those French horns playing the Burt Bacharach melody? We all had a meltdown. There’s a lot of space with just the orchestra playing. It’s reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero and so beautiful, I didn’t want to fill it up with a jazz solo. I refused to play piano in some of those parts because I wanted to leave the space and let the arrangements do their thing.”

LiPuma says the direction taken on Quiet Nights is not too far of a departure from Krall’s natural musical inclination.

“She’s been very sympathetic to this music for a long time,” LiPuma says. “When we did The Look of Love, we were very much leaning in the bossa nova direction. Quiet Nights is really a celebration of this music. Diana sings three Brazilian classics, she rhythmically turned four standards into that style, and three ballads. So really there are 10 songs on the album, of which seven are just straight up bossa novas.”

Krall says much of the album was completed in one or two takes. Each song began with a quartet arrangement, with guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton accompanying Krall, their long-time colleague.

Says LiPuma of the recording process: “Claus wrote the charts and then we did the rhythm tracks to his specifications. But it wasn’t like it was a routine – Diana loves going in there with the quartet. She’s been at this a while and has a certain manner of doing things. She knows that it’s about trying to find the groove. She feels much more comfortable in doing it with just a quartet, then bringing in the strings and so forth afterwards.”

Her vocals on the record are thoroughly adult, with some mileage on them that adds to the flavor.

“She’s completely matured,” says LiPuma, who began working with Krall in 1994. “Even in the past few years. She approaches her vocal phrasing much more like an instrumentalist than a straight singer. It’s in her reading of the lyrics and the timbre of her voice, much more misty like Peggy Lee in her mature period.”