Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Above a Whisper: Diana Krall’s Turn Up The Quiet

Diana Krall with producer Tommy LiPuma in 2001. (Photo: Bruce Gilbert)

In 1997, jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall released an album of standards called Love Scenes on the prestigious label known as Impulse! Records. It was a game-changer for the young musician, eager to showcase her great band featuring Russell Malone, guitar, and Christian McBride, bass. The setting was simple: no strings or elaborate orchestral accompaniment. It was a record that captured the band at its peak, à la Nat King Cole back in the forties. Cole’s intimate singing created a kind of chamber jazz that was easy to listen to and could swing like crazy. For Krall, who toured festivals around the world with her own trio, it was a turning point in her career. She was on a major label and fully supported by producer Tommy LiPuma, who encouraged Krall to feel every lyric and experiment with different tempos on a wide-ranging selection of songs about love. The 13 tracks on Love Scenes are deeply felt by Krall and each work is treated with respect and was arranged to suit her singing style at the time. Krall perfectly blended the edginess of Carmen McRae with the sexiness of Julie London. It was the album that put Krall on the international jazz map but I think it typecast her as a chanteuse rather than as an adventurous jazz artist who loves to sing.

On May 5 this year, twenty years after the release of Love Scenes, Diana Krall released her new album, with the cute title Turn Up The Quiet, on the equally prestigious Verve label, distributed by Universal. Tommy LiPuma, who, sadly, died March 17, 2017 at the age of 80, produced the album. It was his last gig as a producer. (Krall speaks highly of her late producer and mentor in the June 2017 issue of Downbeat Magazine.) LiPuma’s award-winning career in music was never in doubt. He helped an all-star roster of great singers reach wider recognition with varying degrees of financial and artistic success. Among his most famous prodigies were George Benson, Dave Mason, Barbra Streisand and Natalie Cole, whose album Unforgettable went 7-times platinum in the United States. When he met Diana Krall – a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia – the two began a long artistic collaboration that resulted in 12 albums, millions in sales and worldwide acclaim. Their first record, released in 1995, was Only Trust Your Heart (GRP), when Krall was 30 years old. It peaked at number 8 on the Billboard Jazz Album chart.

A year later Krall released her tribute to the Nat King Cole Trio, All For You (GRP), featuring the same configuration as Cole’s group, piano, bass and guitar. Her timing was good -- the record peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Jazz chart and went on to Gold Album status in the United States and Canada. Krall was now becoming a household name beyond jazz circles, moving into the mainstream. She got gigs in the major jazz festivals like Montreal and Newport, entertaining audiences with her cheeky mix of edgy tunes penned by Dave Frishberg, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. And she made them her own, breaking away from mere imitation, by arranging the songs to suit her silky voice with some fine piano licks in between. Krall’s music was perfect for mainstream jazz radio: not too hard, not too soft, with an engaging rhythm section of Malone and McBride, two of the young lions to emerge out of the late eighties jazz renaissance that included Wynton Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin.

For me, Krall’s albums showed little artistic growth, musically speaking, after the first one. When she added strings to her successful record The Look Of Love, arranged by Klaus Ogerman, I was struck by the tension in the music and the edginess but that style gradually softened on her subsequent records. Krall’s success was entirely based on a lush, rounded and sympathetic sound. She honed her skills, with the help of LiPuma, into a more inoffensive sound, rarely playing anything faster than a ballad, even though her Latin album Quiet Nights (Verve) tried to counter the predictability of her music. In spite of her great promise in the jazz world upon her debut in 1993, I think she made artistic compromises in her presentation over the years. Perhaps she made some artistic concessions in order to succeed in the very competitive music business.

Krall was never really a niche artist per se. But I would argue that a woman of her exceptional talent as a jazz pianist and arranger fell under the spell of audience and quite possibly record label expectations. Success sometimes has you playing it safe and meeting, rather than exceeding, what you think the fans want. To me, jazz is about challenging yourself and bringing your audience along for the ride. Krall had the confidence to try this in 2012 without Tommy LiPuma on Glad Rag Doll (Verve), produced by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett’s best record, as a producer, remains Raising Sand (Rounder) by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, so I was encouraged by Krall’s choice as an artist, undermined perhaps by the risqué cover art.

Glad Rag Doll is a darker, heavier album that lingers long after it ends. The song selection is based on Krall’s father’s collection of 78 r.p.m. recordings from the 1920s and 1930s. The album isn’t perfect, but I appreciated her process and her willingness to take a chance and carry her audience into a different soundscape – and to an extent it worked. The album sold 46,000 copies in the first week of its release and charted on the Billboard 200 at number 6. Once again, Krall’s timing was fortuitous.  She challenged her audience with a new sound and they followed without prejudice.

Three years later, after a period of absence from the recording studio to raise her twins with husband Elvis Costello, Krall emerged in 2015 with Wallflower, produced by David Foster, a fellow ex-pat Canadian from B.C. Foster’s success in the music business is well-known:  he has been a producer and arranger for Chicago, Céline Dion and Josh Groban, to name three of the most popular artists in mainstream pop. But while the Foster/Krall match looked good on paper, Wallflower collapses under the weight of over-produced, poorly arranged schmaltz, the kind that Foster has built his career making. Wallflower was Diana Krall’s sixth top-10 bestselling album, according to Billboard, and reportedly sold over 44,000 copies in the first week of its release. For me Krall’s decision to cover pop songs from the seventies and eighties by such bands as The Eagles, Crowded House, 10cc and The Mamas & The Papas, risked little in the way of innovation or performance. The album sold well, but I would argue that it was musically and artistically the safest record in her career.

Which brings us to Turn Up The Quiet (Verve), Krall’s 13th album. This time Krall and LiPuma reunite with a first-rate selection of jazz standards that reacquaint us with their earlier work. Once again Krall has surrounded herself with some of the finest musicians in jazz today. Alan Broadbent orchestrates three of the songs on the disc, which also reunites Krall with Russell Malone and Christian McBride for several cuts along with drummer Jeff Hamilton and bass player John Clayton, Jr., the latter of whom shared the bill with Krall on her 2005 Christmas album. But the stronger tracks feature bluegrass legend Stuart Duncan, fiddle, and Tom Waits alumnus Marc Ribot, guitar, that are “in the pocket.” Nevertheless, while the musicians on this album are superb, I’m not convinced that they inspired Krall’s vocal performances very much. Some of the songs, such as “Night and Day,” suffer from poor, breathy vocals by Krall. That Cole Porter classic has a musical range well within her grasp, but she sounds like she’s got a cold, to be frank, and I can’t believe an artist of her stature would have given the okay to release such a lousy rendition of the song.

That said, some of the tracks on Turn Up The Quiet have some zest, like “Blue Skies” (with its Monk reference to “In Walked Bud”), on which the trio really swings. Another highlight is “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” (featuring Duncan and Ribot), with its bright vocal performance, but Krall’s voice isn’t holding up on the rest of the album. On many of the tracks, such as “Like Someone In Love,” Krall’s tone has fallen to a whisper. I don’t know if this is the result of a physical ailment, but when Wallflower was released she had to postpone the accompanying tour by six months in order to recover from a severe case of pneumonia, but that was two years ago. Now she’s planning a world tour beginning in November, and it is my sincere hope that her voice holds up. Turn Up The Quiet is one of those intimate albums in a form she and LiPuma resurrected all those years ago on Love Scenes. Has she “found her stride,” as some local DJs have suggested? I’m not certain. There was always something annoyingly coy about her records, as if she were playing the reluctant chanteuse seducing the listener into entering her world. Trouble is, I wasn’t sold because she wasn’t convincing in that role, and if that means she’s found her stride as has been suggested, then she’s pleasing her fans, and, sadly, not herself.


John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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