Sunday, March 24, 2019

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Searching for Diana

Not long ago, I published a lousy article in the newspaper I work for in Bangkok. That’s quite an admission to make. Like most writers, I invest a lot of ego and presumptions-of -authority-and-relevance into my work. So allow me to qualify that self-judgment: it wasn’t a badly written piece, or an egregiously stupid one. But it was plagued by a sentimental tone bordering on the creepy, a lack of critical bite on a subject that demanded more incisive thinking, and no insight into the ambivalence I was obviously feeling about the subject. But because no one at the features desk challenged me on these points, the article was published as written.

The piece was a brief essay on the occasion of jazz superstar Diana Krall’s first concert in Bangkok. The show had taken place five days earlier but, because of our section deadlines, The Nation was unable to print a review of it any earlier and the Bangkok Post beat us to it by three days. So, instead of offering the standard wrap-up of the concert and how Krall was received by her Thai audience—which would have been very old news by then—I chose instead to focus on my memories of Diana Krall from our youth in Nanaimo, BC. I talked about how Krall and my younger sister Lise were in the same class at elementary school and worked at the same restaurant as teenagers. And I described how every mention of Diana Krall, the sight of her photo or the sound of her voice reminded me of my sister because she and Lise were almost exactly the same age, were both confident young women and, apart from hair colour, shared a similar appearance. This recognition was a haunting of sorts: Lise died in a drowning accident at 19 and will never reach her potential the way Krall has. So Krall’s celebrity is, for me, a constant reminder of my sister’s snuffed-out narrative. Until that concert in Bangkok, I wrote, I hadn’t seen Diana Krall in person for 20 years, when Lise was still alive and the two of them were working in that restaurant together.

Nothing wrong with a bit of personal memoir, as far as it goes. But then I wrote this:
When I finally saw Diana Krall again, two decades later in another hemisphere – after all the Juno and Grammy awards, the concert for US president Bill Clinton, the hobnobbing with Tony Bennett and Oscar Peterson, the multiple film score credits, and the raves by everyone from Harrison Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker to Elton John and Sting—it was hard to separate my critical reaction to her concert from those memories of Nanaimo and all the "what if?"s about Lise.

"Hard to separate my critical reaction"? Well, that’s a cop-out. At the very least, I could have used "those memories of Nanaimo" as a departure for further reflection rather than as a reason to shut down my critical faculties. Instead, I went on to write four paragraphs of standard review-ese about the concert—recycled fluff about Diana Krall’s prowess as an interpreter of pop jazz standards, plus an apology for the time pressure she was under after rebooking her Asian tour due to her mother’s recent death from cancer—followed by a brief description of a post-concert party that Krall couldn’t wait to get away from. Finally, this rather lame clincher: If Lise were alive today, I found myself wondering, would she want to trade places with Diana at that moment?"

The following is how the piece should have been written.

**********
"Back in high school," Diana Krall told her Bangkok audience halfway through a sold-out show in the sparkling ballroom of the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre, "I never imagined I would end up here." Well, that makes two of us.

Before her appearance in the Kingdom as a Grammy award-winning international superstar, the last time I had seen Diana Krall in person she was playing the piano at the local steak-and-brew in Nanaimo, paying her career dues as an ambitious 17-year-old. She was a big hit with the weekend crowd of cigar-chomping bank managers and timber executives, whom she serenaded with lively renditions of Fats Waller and Cole Porter tunes.

Back then, no one who came from Nanaimo ever became world-famous. A coal mining boomtown in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Nanaimo was an anonymous little seaside truckstop on the West coast where nothing really happened. During the 1970s, it was a fishing and lumber town whose biggest employer was a pulp mill. Although a handful of novelists like Jack Hodgins and Anne Cameron tapped into their muses from its shores, it wasn’t exactly a cultural Left Bank. The "Hub City" was known mainly for its annual bathtub race to Vancouver, its boxing fights, and its colourful mayor Frank Ney – a lovable drunk who once refused to fund an arts centre because, as he told my mother, "the people prefer corn to culture". How could a jazz musician growing up in such an environment ever amount to much more than a successful nightclub act if she didn’t write her own material or invent some new "fusion" genre?

Obviously, the gal had talent. There are female jazz singers and female jazz pianists, but few who combine the two talents so effortlessly. Over the years, the smooth, dulcet tones of Diana Krall’s adolescent voice matured into the rich, sultry croon of a torch song diva—a sound like Barbara Stanwyck cloned with Julie London. It was an elegant and sexy voice, with romantic cadences and catchy phrasing that were right up there with Sinatra’s. On the piano, she displayed all the form that’s required of a top-flight jazz musician: she had a great instinct for improvisation, impeccable timing, and a sense of arrangement that complemented her fellow musicians, making her a dream to work with.

But that wasn’t all she had going for her. In addition to talent, Diana Krall had physical beauty. I don’t want to go overboard here and ascribe totally cynical motives to her record label’s marketing department. But this woman is a glamorous, blonde Diana goddess the world hasn’t seen since, well, the last glamorous, blonde Diana goddess (you know, the one who’s no longer with us). That’s why her face is prominently displayed on her latest album, "The Look of Love", as it is on all the others—its every feature airbrushed to perfection. She is indeed a princess; the "total package", as a music industry exec might say.

Diana Krall, her publicity tells us, was "a four-year veteran of piano lessons by age nine". That was the same year, just across the hall from her at Cilaire Elementary School, that I was giving up on musical instruments because my parents rejected my choice of the trumpet. Later, while I was wanking my way through high school by wasting my summer job earnings on rock and roll albums that would end up in garage sale trash heaps, Diana Krall was setting herself up for a scholarship at the Berkelee Music School.

After being "discovered" at the restaurant in Nanaimo, Krall’s musical apprenticeship lasted nearly a decade. She moved to New York, met everyone who was anyone in the jazz world, and slowly worked her way to a recording career. In the last decade, she has produced five albums. All of them are lush recordings with rich production values; they’re perfect to play at the end of a long date when you just want to sit down with your partner du jour and knock back a couple of whisky sodas before collapsing on the couch for the night.

The only criticism I’d heard of Diana Krall before she showed up in Bangkok was that all of her songs sounded the same. And there is a bit of truth to this. When she first hit the stage that night, plodding her way through "Love Being There", then followed that with an a cappella version of Lawrence/Altman’s "All or Nothing at All", there was a strange aloofness about her demeanor. Her playing and singing were flawless, as usual, but there were odd moments of detachment from her audience that suggested boredom with the material. (My Thai companion at the concert, a colleague from The Nation, was somewhat harsher in his verdict: he thought she sounded "cold and soulless".)

I also had to wonder at Krall’s choice—or was it someone else’s?—of "The Look of Love" as the title track for the new album. From a sales standpoint, it made sense: the pop music world had been going through a Burt Bacharach renaissance that’s dragged on for a couple of years. "The Look of Love" was released the same year that big retrospectives on Burt came out, including tribute compilations and boxed set albums by the cocktail king himself. Lots of other artists have been jumping on the Burt bandwagon, shamelessly pandering to the nostalgia industry. Jose Padilla, for one, couldn’t get enough of "The Look of Love". He included Dusty Springfield’s version three years ago on "Café Del Mar: Volume Six", a jazz pop/fusion series he produced. Then last year he included N’Dea Davenport’s version on his own "Navigator".

Surely this song has long since passed the point of parody worthy of the karaoke lounge set. Like "Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You" ("You’re Just Too Good To Be True")–one of those songs that no serious artist can perform without stifling the gag reflex. So why would Krall, a musician’s musician with obvious respect for jazz tradition, one who is so much more interesting and creative when she attempts something like "Take the ‘A’ Train", bother singing it—much less make it the title track of her new album?

My hunch is that a lot of the choices she makes about her music are not her own. These days, it seems, modern jazz has become the only pop music genre in which it is possible to achieve international stardom through interpretation rather than song-writing credits. Once you’ve eliminated the fight to push your own material through a record company, and then, once you’ve subjected yourself to the full arsenal of the company’s publicity department, then all subsequent claims of artistic freedom become instantly suspect. As an artist for Verve/Universal, which belongs to Sony, Diana Krall would not be where she is today if she were a rebel-rousing boat-rocker who insisted on total control of her own material. And that, for me, raises the question of how much of this torch song persona she puts out to the world is really her own and how much of it is manufactured for marketing purposes; to what extent has she become her own person—an autonomous individual artist expressing herself through her medium, as opposed to a tool of the music industry?

I suspect that, despite all the superficial glamour, the name-dropping and the New York City postal code, there’s probably a lot of that Girl Next Door from Nanaimo about her. It was certainly in evidence at the post-concert reception organised in her honour. Krall seemed dazed when she walked through the door to find a large crowd of people and a lavish spread of canapes and whiskey laid out by sponsor Chivas Regal – as if no one had told her in advance. When she was invited onstage to address her fans and have her picture taken with a few of them, there was a moment of excruciating silence as the emcee waited for Krall to cross the floor and join her onstage.

"Oh," the singer said, sounding exasperated, "nobody told me about this." Such glad-handing publicity stunts are the bane of every music superstar’s existence; they are to be tolerated, not embraced. But in Thailand, a country whose people treat Western pop stars like royalty and are delighted by any contact with them, a little forbearance can go a long way. Thai culture places very high importance on the ability to be polite and show humility when people place themselves below you in public; it’s a major breach of protocol when you fail to do so. Most celebrity visitors to The Land of Smiles do enough research on the basics before arriving to avoid diplomatic embarrassment while they’re here. But Krall, who was clearly showing the effects of cramming 22 shows and 12 countries into 37 days, didn’t have it together.

When she arrived onstage, the perky hostess from TV Channel 11 showered her with compliments on her performance and expressed regret that Krall had flown in only for one night and was leaving the next day. When would she be back to see more of this country and meet more of its people?

"Whenever you’ll have me," Krall replied, offering nothing more. There were a few more failed attempts to get the singer to connect with the crowd—mostly Thai yuppies who had paid several thousand baht for the privilege of having their photo taken with the star—before the emcee lobbed a softie. "Do you have any message for your Thai fans?" she was asked.

"Oh, just what I said onstage—that I’m really happy to be here and that I want to thank the fans in Bangkok for such a great reception." Period.

Oh dear: a canned response. Krall sounded very much like a player being interviewed on Hockey Night in Canada. There were smiles all around, and scattered bits of polite applause, but it was clear to everyone in the room—perhaps even the guest of honour herself—that she was bombing big-time, and the emcee had little choice but to move things along and get to the photo session. After enduring two or three groups of "lucky winners" who posed with her, the star of the show began making her way through a procession of well-wishers, clearly heading for the exit. After less than ten minutes, the "meet-and-greet" Diana Krall love-in was over.

I swallowed my complimentary Chivas Regal and shrugged at my missed opportunity to surprise a hometown girl in Bangkok.

September 17, 2002 2,352 words

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Daniel Gawthrop

Daniel Gawthrop

Daniel Gawthrop is a Vancouver writer, and the author of several books, the most recent of which is "The Trial of Pope Benedict: Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican's Assault on Reason, Compassion and Human Dignity" (Arsenal Pulp, 2013).

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