Diana Krall on Tommy LiPuma, Quarantining With Elvis Costello and ‘This Dream of You’
With the release of “This Dream of You,” jazz pianist and soigné contralto vocalist Diana Krall will display her usual mix of tartness and tastefulness with selections from the Great American Songbook — from Irving Berlin to Bob Dylan’s title track — with a familiar cast of characters to go with the album’s cinematic arc. As with 2017’s “Turn Up the Quiet,” Krall is joined on “This Dream of You” by what she calls her “extended family”: her longtime backing trio of John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton and Anthony Wilson on several tracks, rhythm masters Christian McBride and Russell Malone on two tunes, and the quartet of Marc Ribot, Stuart Duncan, Tony Garnier and Karriem Riggins on the rest of the LP.
If Krall and company constitute a family, then her longtime producer and music industry giant Tommy LiPuma is its father, a paterfamilias who aided and abetted Krall and her craft through 25 years of recordings until his passing in 2017, not long after “Turn Up the Quiet” was completed. With over 30 additional songs recorded between the producer, the platinum-plated pianist-vocalist and their players during these same often spare sessions, more marvelous recordings were in order for release, in the form of “This Dream of You.”
Quarantined with her two children and husband Elvis Costello (whose own new album, “Hey Clockface,” is due a month from now), Krall — in her first interview regarding “This Dream of You” — talked expansively and emotionally on a series of far-ranging topics.
VARIETY: You share a life with your family, currently in quarantine. Do you and your husband talk much about work, like the fact that the two you have albums out this autumn with releases mere weeks from the other?
KRALL: You mean me and Elvis? Oh God, yeah. Like everyone, we’re taking time to love, laugh and comfort each other, and find comfort in music, art and reading. Being together is very unusual for us, especially in the last few years, because I go on tour, and Elvis is home, then he goes on tour, and I’m home. So, being together, it’s a loving time for us and for our family. And a creative time, too. I’m in awe of him every day, and how he works. It’s an education to have access to this. For children, too. I talk to kids about this all the time: how this does not need to be your life’s work, but you should know what it feels like to play a ‘G’ on the piano, or pick up a guitar and know what that feels like. That’s a form of artistic expression, a means when words don’t arrive… The beauty of having Elvis at home is the excitement at wondering what he’s going to play for me at the end of the day.
Or what you’re going to play for each other?
I think his stuff’s more pointed that mine. Not to undermine what I do, but hearing him up-close like this is something I rarely get the chance to do. And what he’s doing is extraordinary. Now we have the time for evening dinners, to sit around as a family and talk about life and art. It’s been tough, too. Elvis had cancer. That was a busy and scary time, too….
You’re lucky to have each other.
We are. And we’re lucky to have music. We both know that it is a privilege to be able to make music, and put out records, in these times, and you hope that somebody else finds comfort in what we’re able to do. That it’s a loving thing.
Seguing into someone else long in your life: Tommy LiPuma, your longtime producer, and the man behind the sessions that yielded “Turn Out the Lights” and “This Dream of You.” Did you read Ben Sidran’s new biography, “The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma?”
No. I did not read that book.
In it LiPuma talks about being there near the start of your career, first hearing you and not entirely digging it, then seeing you on BET doing “Body and Soul” and getting that light bulb moment — that you were a hardcore jazz purist. What do you recall about getting to know LiPuma?
I was working hard to be a jazz pianist, and had done a record with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton — my band, to this day. I came from Vancouver where I just devoured everything I had access to, which included seeing greats such as Oscar Peterson and Roy Brown. One of the most important days of my life was seeing Peterson play live. It was like a direct lightning bolt hit me. It matters that you feel things such as this that you can respond to. I bought the right records and had the right educators: Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Miles Davis. I started playing in piano bars when I was 15; that’s two years older than my kids are now. I did my own album before all that and raised my own money for it. I worked and worked and got to New York City and was introduced to Carl Griffin (then the senior VP of A&R at GRP Records) who was, credit where credit’s due, looking to sign me first. He gave me that chance and believed in me before Tommy heard me. He turned Tommy on to that BET thing… You find people to champion you, partner with you. Al Schmidt (the renowned recording engineer), Tommy and I had an amazing partnership. Tommy wouldn’t sit in the booth. He would sit with me in the room when we recorded.
What was the studio environment like between you, Tommy and your players?
Tommy wouldn’t be removed. He took himself out of the behind-the-glass situation, and got deeper in; became part of the ensemble without being in any one’s way. He would be completely quiet. Respectful. He would sit with his headphones on, eyes closed, and let the music be. When you finished a tune, he’d just let it be… until he opened his eyes. He’d look at you and say, “Yeah,” or “One more,” quietly. Ever so quietly. He knew I needed quiet to work, to process, to vibe off of the musicians. The less Tommy said, the more he knew he would get from me. The more that we worked together, the more intimate that process, and trust, became.
He made sure that you had the time and space to do what you needed to do.
He knew that I needed that. That’s why this last time, we did so many tracks. I intuitively knew… I wanted to go, I kept playing. He wasn’t well at that time. When we were doing those last recordings with (guitarist) Marc Ribot, Tommy was having issues.
LiPuma is known for considering structure and tempo first, then deconstructing and reconstructing. Was that true of all of your sessions, in particular those that yielded “This Dream of You”?
Considering that those sessions marked the 25th year of us working together, I didn’t think of things in that manner. He’d walk into a studio and say, “What are we doing?,” and I’d say, “I don’t know,” and go from there. I’d work it out with Al Schmidt and the musicians I’ve played with for years. Extraordinary people. That was the process. Sometimes I would say, “Let’s do some tunes with Alan” (Broadbent, her longtime orchestrator), which was my way of saying that I wanted to sing songs with just Alan’s (piano). Let’s see where that goes. We went in, and let it happen. These people — Alan, Al, the musicians, Tommy — would bring in their own ideas, many more, at times, than I may have come in with.
Even though the songs that fill “Turn Up the Quiet” and “This Dream of You” come from the same sessions, what separates them into albums — psychically, sonically, spiritually?
We were working with three different ensembles, and as time went on, you could sense that we were working within a certain picture frame. I wanted to keep going and see what we came up with. After we finished what felt like several albums’ worth of material, he wanted to do one more song. Then another. And then he got very ill. I can remember having to do press on “Turn Up the Quiet” ten days after he died — I was torn into bits between dealing with the shock of that happening, then talking about a record. The difference now? OK. I can recall Tommy saying to me repeatedly, “Babe…”
“But Beautiful.” He loved that song. He wanted to make sure that we found a place for that. He was thinking about another album, what went into what picture frame. He passed away before we finished everything, and rather than leave those songs in a vault, I worked through it. I knew there were some tracks that Tommy might want to fix, or overdub. Then again, we were always in a first-take situation. Sometimes I choose to sing a line. Sometimes I choose to play it on piano. What came out is, as always, about keeping it nice and loose. Going back to “Autumn in New York,” for example, I was shocked to hear it again. It’s so austere, so simple; the strings came in at exactly the right time. You don’t have to have everything all at once. I needed it to be right in your ear, up-close. So Al Schmidt and Eric (Boulanger, who mastered the album) made it so. We honor Tommy in doing this. I learned a lot from him about the nature of hard work.
Twenty-five years is a long time.
Look, we didn’t want it to end. We had so much fun working together. In all the sadness and all the worry, there is beauty, something that takes away some of the pain.
The new album is exquisitely curated, but the bookends of “But Beautiful” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are truly sumptuous exclamations. You started talking about “But Beautiful.”
It was Tommy’s favorite. That’s his baby. That’s all Tommy. He and I would argue about that song… We’d still be having a conversation about where we would be putting that song. So, opening the album with that track felt right. “Singin’ in the Rain,” you could go either way: (Stanley) Kubrick (who used it ironically in “A Clockwork Orange”) or Donen (the co-director of the 1952 film with Gene Kelly) when considering it. I’m just interpreting it. You have to find your own thing in there.
And what’s your thing with ‘Singing in the Rain?”
Stanley (Donen) and I were friends. We used to hang out quite a bit in New York. You didn’t know that about me. There are clues. We would go to the same restaurant, talk and have the most delightful time. He sent me all of his movies. That’s part of the reason why I play that song, to remind me of that time, one of my favorite parts of being in New York. Tommy introduced me to Stanley, and I felt very sad when he passed, so perhaps this is my way… a tribute to be paid. Somebody told me, though: It should be more upbeat. Nah. I think it should be just like this: minimalist.
That’s an eclectic jump between Kubrick and Donen.
Hey, let’s listen to the Stooges for 20 minutes! I love the Stooges. “Raw Power.” I worked with Iggy Pop last summer (both recorded on Thomas Dutronc’s version of “C’est si bon”), and have been known to play along with Stooges albums late at night. We did some amazing jamming together, some really deep, wild blues… I’m always discovering stuff. My kids turned me onto Gorillaz. I still like tuning the radio to see what I can find. I like the spontaneity. Stanley Donen and “Raw Power,” right?
You once said that you truly discovered jazz in eighth grade by improvising through Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” realizing you could get happily lost in a song. Considering the riffing you do with “I Wished on the Moon,” and the scope of the new album, how important is the adventure of improvisation now, of jazz now?
Feeling that feeling while improvising? It was a lightning bolt, life-changing in the same way seeing Oscar (Peterson) was. It felt important and right. Still does. Improvising in life is important, how to navigate your next move. Today’s different, so how are we going to choose our next response? One thing we hopefully do as jazz musicians is take risks within certain structures and make it sound right — listen, respond, and be helpful. Be empathic.