When Diana Krall released the album “Glad Rag Dolls” last October — comprising mostly show tunes from the 1920s that she grew up hearing from her father’s side of the family — it was appropriately lauded as a bold, humanizing departure for a jazz singer and pianist whose elegant prowess is usually encased in icy detachment.
At the time, Krall said the album sprang from her desire to “make my own old movie.” Sunday night at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, her concert tour, which centered on the songs from “Glad Rag Dolls,” brought that vision even closer to reality. And although her intricate planning created a little too much structure and routine, the more expansive and emotionally self-assured performer we heard on record has transferred — and enhanced — those virtues in concert.
Because of her taste and temperament, Krall will always be sophisticated. But on Sunday, she was also earthy and accessible, dimensions that enriched her talent in ways not apparent on previous tours.
A half-hour before the live music began, a player piano onstage began playing Fats Waller. Fifteen minutes later, old music-themed cartoons of Betty Boop and Tom & Jerry appeared on a large movie screen. Then Krall and her five-piece band were introduced in a film clip by actor Steve Buscemi, who subsequently mugged to the music (on screen) of the opening tune, “When the Curtain Comes Down.”
During nearly all of the 19-song, 110-minute (movie-length) performance, vintage film clips were played, in varying degrees of correlation to the musical selections.
The down side of this structure is a loss of spontaneity. There is precious little variation in the set list and the group has been touring for months now. The result was a polished but pro forma ensemble, which played with more rockish intensity than the Americana-tinged sound producer T-Bone Burnett achieved with Krall in the studio for “Glad Rag Dolls.”
But Krall, 48, herself continues to be liberated by the material and evolving the way it is being presented. Her repartee with the audience usually has elements of wit, sass and wry irreverence, but she was looser this time because of the format she had created. To cite the most obvious example, she spoke of visiting her aunt, who used to give her liqueur with milk at 11 in the morning when she was 16.
Krall said her aunt had been an aspiring showgirl, and as she spoke, a picture of the woman sitting at a piano in her underwear appeared on the movie screen. The jazz star said the sheet music from many of the songs she was playing came from her aunt’s floor — and still smelled like tobacco. When she then launched into the title track from “Glad Rag Dolls,” a tribute to show girls, the prelude enhanced both Krall’s vocal treatment and the audience’s appreciation.
The good news is that Krall’s newfound emotional depth isn’t limited to the “Glad Rag Dolls” songs. On Sunday, she was particularly effective on ballads, plumbing nuances not only from “Let It Rain” off “Glad Rag Dolls,” but also in a gorgeous, innovative rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.” She also nailed the fragile arc of the Band’s “Whispering Pines” during the encore, right on the heels of another Band cover, the jangly “Ophelia.”
The final number in the three-song encore was “Prairie Lullaby,” which will be forever associated with Jimmie Rodgers. Krall introduced the selection by saying that she sings it to her 6-year-old twins at night. When it was done, she went over to the Victrola onstage, cranked it up, put on an old 78 record, and walked off as the screen showed home movies from her childhood.
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis critic and journalist.