NEW YORK — Diana Krall says she felt reinvigorated making her new CD "Glad Rag Doll," which gave her a chance to escape the comfort zone of Great American Songbook standards on which the singer-pianist has built her reputation.
"It's always exciting to do something where you surprise yourself and it's like, 'Wow, I didn't expect that,'" said Krall. "I felt it was time for me to do something which is about what I hear and I like, not a tribute to Nat Cole."
On the CD, Krall reimagines mostly vintage songs from the 1920s and '30s in an eclectic style that goes way beyond her jazz roots. The album was produced by retro Americana specialist T Bone Burnett, best known for the Grammy-winning Robert Plant-Alison Krauss CD "Raising Sand" and "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack. Burnett surrounded her with a new supporting cast of musicians, including the versatile guitarist Marc Ribot, who plays an intimate acoustic duet with Krall on the title track and throws in references to Miles Davis' electric "Tribute to Jack Johnson" on "Lonely Avenue," a 1956 hit for Ray Charles.
The essence of the album is captured in the slightly risque cover portrait. The 47-year-old mother of nearly 6-year-old twin boys poses in vintage black lingerie and stockings selected by Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood, yet her blond hair and makeup are in a contemporary style. Krall says she was going for an updated version of Albert Cheney Johnston's photographs of Ziegfeld Follies showgirls.
Krall insists the new album doesn't represent a change of direction but rather a change of pace. This week, she begins touring in Europe with a new program that will include songs from "Glad Rag Doll" as well as standards from her repertoire such as "Flim Flam Sauce" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."
Though many of the songs on "Glad Rag Doll" are obscure, they resonate with Krall in a more personal way than the more familiar tunes by the Gershwins or Irving Berlin in her repertoire, bringing back fond memories of her childhood in Nanaimo, British Columbia.
"My dad collected 78 rpm records and old sheet music, and this is the music that I heard and discovered that I had a love for," said Krall. "It's taken me 40 years to do this, but it's always been something I wanted to do."
Krall recalls gathering around the piano at her coal miner grandfather's house, and the stories of her great aunt who left Vancouver to sing in vaudeville shows in New York in the 1920s.
When she became more serious about music, Krall found herself drawn to long-forgotten performers from that era like the sweetly seductive singer Annette Hanshaw. Four tunes on Krall's CD — including the opener "We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye" and "Just Like a Butterly That's Caught in the Rain" — were recorded by Hanshaw.
"I think songs like 'Just Like a Butterfly' are relevant today. The story is the same — it's still about loneliness and love — and people still are drawn to that. ... The story doesn't change because it's 2012," said Krall, interviewed at an ABC TV studio after performing the title track on "Live With Kelly and Michael," using the same vintage 1890s upright Steinway piano she used to record most of the CD.
Krall was reluctant to approach Burnett, a close family friend who had produced several albums for her husband Elvis Costello. But he signed on after she sent him a demo solo CD with about 35 songs culled from her father's collection of 78s. Krall says Burnett had a "no-holds-barred" approach with nothing pre-arranged.
"It was the most exciting, creative time for me in a very long time because it was spontaneous and by the seat of our pants," Krall said.
Burnett suggested she include the 1961 Betty James rockabilly tune "I'm a Little Mixed Up." Krall said playing rock is nothing new for her, although "it's new for me on a recording."Comment on this story
Her supporting cast includes Howard Coward, a pseudonym for Costello. Krall says her husband originally was going to do a few ukelele parts, but ended up playing mandola and tenor guitar as well as adding backup vocals, most notably on the closing "When the Curtain Comes Down."
"We had such a good time in the studio," said Krall, who met Costello 10 years ago and now lives with him in Greenwich Village. "He has a very deep understanding of what I do and there's just such incredible support. ... It's pretty cool to be so in love with somebody and then have on top of it a bunch of musical things in common."