Last year, Grammy Award-winning jazz songstress Diana Krall was the guest pianist on Paul McCartney's cheekily-titled album Kisses on the Bottom, a collection of durable '30s and '40s standards.
The former Beatle paid tribute to his musical roots and the songs he heard his father play at the piano when he was a boy. Krall's close collaboration -- she also penned the rhythm arrangements -- with McCartney was one of the great experiences of her two-decade-long career, she says.
"He called me about this song called Home and asked if I knew it and then started singing it to me over the phone -- Paul McCartney is singing to me over the phone. Wow," says Krall, the thrill still evident in her voice, even over the telephone.
"Once I got over that, I said, 'You are the only other person other than me and my dad who knows that song.' We had that in common: music from our dads' era." The project with Macca made her all the more anxious to get on with her longed-for album featuring a collection of largely forgotten Tin Pan Alley tunes from the '20s and '30s introduced to her by her father, who loved Fats Waller. Last summer, she and musician/husband Elvis Costello sat with her 76-year-old dad in his living room for six hours, playing stacks of 78s on his wind-up gramophone.
"I've been listening to this music my whole life," says the Naniamo, B.C.-born Krall, who last performed in Winnipeg in 2009. "When I heard When the Curtain Comes Down and the flipside, Glad Rag Doll, I thought: I have to do this."
She did, and her 11th studio album, Glad Rag Doll, took her down a new musical road that veered away from her familiar path through the Great American Songbook, which has seen her sell more than 15 million records.
The 13 tracks of Glad Rag Doll will be the focus of Krall's concert when she plays the RBC Theatre in the MTS Centre Feb. 16.
Neither she nor primo producer T Bone Burnett were interested in replicating a '20s record. Instead, they took vaudeville rarities like Just Like a Butterfly That's Caught in the Rain, first recorded by Harry Richman in 1927, or Glad Rag Doll, first recorded a year later, and give them a modern sheen that makes sound as if they were written last week.
That means like taking a song like Let it Rain and completely rewriting it in a way that's never been recorded before.
"There is only one recording of Let it Rain and you can't find it anywhere," says Krall, who has won the best female vocalist category in Downbeat jazz magazine's poll for five straight years. "This is all stuff that has not been recorded before. So it's not like the 10th time somebody has done Cheek to Cheek."
The blond with the espresso contralto was particularly drawn to Glad Rag Doll and Ziegfeld Follies showgirls. She found that the lyric, "All dolled up in glad rags / Tomorrow may turn to sad rags... you're just a pretty toy," had enduring contemporary resonance. These women are easy to spot today, she says.
"You can find a glad rag doll anywhere," says Krall. "I think the idea most people have of them are flappers, but there is a darker side. The Ziegfeld girls were photographed beautifully by Alfred Chaney Johnston, but a lot of them perished tragically."
In a tribute to those forgotten women, Krall made herself the focus of a photo shoot in which she lounged in a black bustier, stockings and garters. The 48-year-old mother of six-year-old twin boys poses provocatively on the cover and inside her CD.
The racy images were not positively received by all her fans, who misinterpreted them as a crude marketing ploy that was beneath such a class act.
"I was having fun playing dress-up," she says. "If I was doing a movie poster for Chicago, no one would bat an eye. If you look at the Alfred Chaney Johnston photos of those girls, mine is tame to what they did. It was my idea and I did it before I showed it to the record company."
Her label, Verve, may have preferred a more conservative shot but Krall was adamant that she would go for it.
The sniping recalls the displeasure many people expressed following the release of the Girl in the Other Room in 2004. Fans didn't appreciate Krall spreading her wings and co-writing half the album with Costello. It led to speculation that he had strong-armed her into deviating from her successful formula.
"I get frustrated when I do press and I'm told the record company must have made me do this to sell records, that this is my husband's influence," says Krall, whose spouse performed on Glad Rag Doll under the pseudonym Howard Coward. "I don't get the credit for my own creativity as a strong-willed, creative woman. It's like somehow I have been created by a committee of some men.
"I'm my own woman with my own mind and I'm in charge of my creative visions."
Krall is promising a concert that will be as ambitious as the recording. The songs will be accompanied by visuals such as early Edison footage, stills from French filmmaker George Méliès and Krall family home videos, as well as a short piece by her friend, actor Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire) and his wife, filmmaker Jo Andres.
"It's a very personal show," she says. "I wanted to create a vaudeville movie theatre where I would be the silent movie player."