On the infrequent occasions when someone comes along and sells several million jazz records — as Diana Krall, the very popular vocalist and pianist, has done — that artist can be anointed by fans and critics alike as a sort of ambassador for the music. Like a hometown girl done good, jazz partisans will cheer her infiltration of pop charts, late-night chat shows, and magazine covers.
So when such an artist eventually goes ahead and makes an unabashedly pop album, some purist feathers inevitably get ruffled.
Which brings us to Krall’s new record, “Wallflower,” a collection of mostly soft-rock tunes from the 1970s and ’80s. Has she gotten any push-back from the move?
“Oh, just a little bit,” Krall, 50, says, and asks if the sarcasm in her voice is readily apparent. “But since ‘The Look of Love,’ somebody’s been mad at me,” she adds, referring to her 2001 album of widescreen jazz. “People said, ‘how could you move away from the jazz piano and great Nat Cole songs to these big, syrupy orchestrations?’ I think my super-heroine cape has a few patches on it at the moment.”
This career moment arrives at a challenging time. She’s been off the road since last summer’s Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, sidelined by a serious bout of pneumonia which, she says, still leaves her extra-susceptible to colds. The album (and its support tour) was pushed back from October. In the meantime, her father died.
In fact, in the midst of a cheerful and upbeat telephone interview, the only moment when Krall grows quiet is when she’s asked about her current break from the road. Her sold-out tour kickoff at the Shubert Theatre on Wednesday will mark her first run of shows since getting sick. After a few weeks of promoting the album through many press interviews, she says it’ll actually be something of a relief to hit the road.
“I hope my body’s going to do what I want. I hope I’m going to be healthy, because I’ve been very stretched,” she says. “The last three weeks, I went as hard as I’ve ever gone in my whole life. I think for a person who expresses themselves through music and words and singing, not doing that [is difficult]. I joked that I kind of rearranged the pictures on the wall and walked around with a Phillips-head screwdriver, tightening every door. I think the best thing for my health is to start singing and playing again, and stop talking about it.”
The new album takes its name from the minor Bob Dylan song that was the seed of the project. Songs recorded by Elton John (“Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”), Crowded House (“Don’t Dream It’s Over”), the Carpenters (“Superstar”), and two selections from the Eagles (“Desperado” and “I Can’t Tell You Why”) are represented. The set was produced by David Foster, who has helped to craft recordings by Natalie Cole, Kenny Rogers, ‘N Sync, and Gloria Estefan on his way toward collecting 16 Grammy Awards. Foster, who is also the chief of the Verve label (for which Krall records), also spells Krall at the piano, in a move that allowed her to focus on her vocals. Though it’s a clean and mainstream effort, the album doesn’t sound particularly geared for radio play.
Regardless of what one makes of the record’s sound — and it is a glossy and lushly orchestrated, yet down-tempo affair — Foster attributes any critical backlash to a “double standard” for jazz artists who go pop.
“Bob Dylan makes a standards record, which is not his forte, and critics laud him for it,” Foster says. “If John Mayer came out tomorrow with a jazz album, he would be heralded. Whether he was any good at it or not, he’d be heralded and applauded for attempting it. You can go anywhere to jazz and give it a try, but you can’t seem to go from jazz to anywhere else without getting blasted.”
Krall says she simply wanted to sing a different body of songs while respecting their original idiom.
“I’m not trying to make the Eagles into Irving Berlin,” she says. “I find that musically it’s very challenging, and vocally it’s interesting to me. It’s not about improvisation, it’s about singing songs completely straight so that the feeling of the song comes across — and not make them into jazz songs and not distract from the original story.”
She says she chose each song carefully, whether because of the strength of its story — she cites Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” on this count — or a personal association from her youth. “It’s not like, ‘Diana Krall Does the Hits of the ’70s,’ yeah! Every one of these songs, I grew up with.”
Still, fans shouldn’t see any permanent shift in direction here.
“At heart,” Krall says, “I’m a jazz pianist. That’s what I was born to do.”