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Diana Krall emerges with a Christmas album for the ages

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Chatting with Diana Krall can be a pleasantly sketchy experience, something the increasingly adored Canadian jazz chanteuse readily admits. Right away she's charming, at times candid, courteous to a fault. But her thought process ... well, it's a bit like her piano playing. It can get knotty and trail off unexpectedly, but just as often be lucid and lyrical.

Yet she's eager to discuss her first yuletide collection, the simply wonderful "Christmas Songs," made both lushly melancholy and swiftly swingin' by the venerable Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Recording it, she says, was the most delightful, pressure-free time she's spent in the studio.

"It was like a big party at Capitol Studios. This is the pressure now - talking about it, which is not my greatest strength. This is always that time when I've been focused on (a project) for a while, and then I talk about it and analyze it with people like yourself - and I start freaking out."

She let out an eruption of nervous, infectious laughter.

I had merely told her what I'd tell anyone: "Christmas Songs" is not just the best of this season's heap of holiday albums, it's one for the ages. Cut with more care and soul than most run-of-the-mill sets, it's bound to become a perennial fave like the classics from Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney and Ella Fitzgerald it evokes.

"But is it part of a dying breed?" I wondered.

"Oh, I don't think so. There are people making Christmas albums, aren't there?"

"Not like this one."

"Yeah, but obviously I don't think of it that way. I just put on my Garanimals and baseball cap and went down to the studio and had a good time. I wanted everybody to have fun, and I didn't want to put any novelty in it."

She stopped herself. "Well, they're all novelties, anyway." Some are up: "Jingle Bells," "Let It Snow," "Winter Wonderland." Some are wistful: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

None of them is religious.

"I have such strong faith, but that's a personal thing. I appreciate the carols as well, and the spiritual side of the season is extremely important. Maybe in the future I'll do another one that focuses on that side of it."

That would keep to the Ella model she appears to be following. This set is somewhat tailored on "Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas" (1960). Perhaps Krall will someday deliver a holier counterpart inspired by "Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas Album" (1967).

It also would uphold a Krall family tradition of mixing the sacred and the secular, which the 41-year-old says goes back decades. "One of the things I did - I still do - is play my dad's old Firestone records, these collections that have, like, Johnny Mathis, the Swingle Singers, Andy Williams. But then my mother sang Handel's Messiah every year with the choir, so we'd hear that, too.

"But we weren't so much listening as we were playing. My grandmother would have Christmas carol parties, and, of course, a Fats Waller tune would be in there somewhere. And my mother would be like, `OK, back to Christmas now! You and your nana: It's "Away in a Manger," and then it's off to "Ain't Misbehavin."' I have tapes of when I was a kid, the whole family gathered around the piano. Just a madhouse."

It isn't so much now. Krall married Elvis Costello two Decembers ago, but she lost her mother at Christmastime the year before that. "When you have a major loss like that at Christmastime, it can be especially difficult. It's an intense time for people, anyway - it can be about intense sadness or intense joy or both."

"Someone should make a `Songs for Only the Lonely at Christmas' album," I offered.

"Oh, God, no!" And there's that laugh again. "Let's not go down that road. It's too true."

As for her sadness: "I didn't want to close the door on it. I think this album has been cathartic for me. I don't do anything lightly, unfortunately."

But why a Christmas album? Why a big band? Why now?

Jazz purists have been urging Krall to move in that direction for a while, but last year she confounded them with "The Girl in the Other Room," an album that drew more acclaim from rock critics because it found Krall co-writing six compositions with Costello alongside songs from Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits.

Yet now she's lunged into big-band arrangements, and she intends to work with the Clayton-Hamilton crew again when she returns to the studio in March. Still, her first foray isn't exactly what aficionados might have been pining for.

"Why now? Who knows? You do what you do when it feels right. I would get asked that: Are you gonna do a big band record?' And I was like,No, no, no! I'm not into that.' And now I'm into it."

"I guess it'd be like asking Ray Charles why he wanted to do country one year but R&B the next," I said.

"Do you know who I'm married to?" she replied, laughing. She still hadn't mentioned his name. Never did, in fact.

"The guy's writing opera one moment, something totally different the next. That's why we get along so well - because we have lots of ideas. He's certainly inspiring to me, in that sense of `Do what you want and follow your heart.'"

Had she wanted to, Krall could have endlessly copied "The Look of Love," her 2001 effort that was a rare jazz entry in the Album of the Year field at the Grammys.

"I could've said, `That was successful - I'll just do Part 2.' But I wasn't feeling that in my heart.

"Somebody's always gonna say something. But doing new things is how you find your creative range. You have to do that or you'll never grow."


(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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