Diana Krall’s retro sensibility was on full display on April 16 during the Wilmington, Delaware stop of her Glad Rag Doll tour. She was on stage for two hours, and sang only a couple of contemporary songs. In the past her breathy alto and impeccable piano phrasing combined to give sensitive renderings of selections from the Great American Songbook; her numerous albums propelled her to superstar status. But she turned her back on all that.
Instead, she did something that great artists often do. She showed her evolution by going back to her roots. She offered her adoring fans a complete theatrical experience that was an object lesson in showing respect for tradition by making it contemporary. For her tradition is primarily the tradition of the black singers and piano players that she listened to as a young girl. She mentioned three: Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.
Actually, Fats performed—virtually. Before the show the audience listened to piano rolls by him, and later when Diana was alone on the stage, she said that Fats was her original musical inspiration. To prove the point, she played some of his classic songs on an old upright piano. That piano didn’t look out of place next to her grand piano because it was part of an atmospheric stage set that she created. It included an old gramophone; the last thing she did before leaving for the night was to wind it up and play a scratchy old 78rpm record. How's that for retro?
And then there were the movies. The concert began with a black and white performance piece by Steve Buscemi of Boardwalk Empire fame, and then segued to a Betty Boop cartoon. Diana has no interest in anything as newfangled as color movies! When she and her backup musicians came out, silent movies played behind them. And they weren’t just any silent movies, either. The movies playing on the screen and the songs being performed on the stage were thematically coordinated. It was evident that she put a lot of time and thought into preparing the concert, which is something so new and so remarkable that we don’t yet have a name for it.
Finally, it’s worth noting that she didn’t just sing; she also talked. She talked about her childhood, about her relatives who had minor careers in show business, and—always—music. “I’m rambling,” she said at one point, but nobody minded, because she was saying such intriguing things. For instance, she said that the ukulele was a “sexy instrument” because you can play it in the bathtub. And if the bathtub is filled with gin, you can have a martini without using a glass. Who besides the inimitable Diana Krall would have thought of that?