Maybe a good listener could pick up on the details of the turmoil dotting Diane Schuur's life by merely listening to her sing. A good listener can catch the nuances of her Blues, the squeals in the shading and the vibrato in the emotional yelps.
Between bites of eggs and before an appointment to tape a radio interview in the lobby of her Philadelphia hotel, Schuur talks longer than she's supposed to about her beginnings, her current state of bliss and the death of Bebop, her beloved "very hip cat."
At first stern and agitated, Schuur dissolves into easy giggles, punctuating her replies with "girlfriend."
"I've really become a lot more aware of life and the process of things," says Schuur. "For the first time in a long time I believe in myself."
The songs told us that much. And the songs fooled us in a way. While she blew away audiences onstage and on record, she battled alcoholism and an eating disorder. When she made her major-label debut in 1984 on GRP with Deedles, critics and listeners alike paused, thinking they'd heard the reincarnation of Dinah Washington.
Schuur sang sassy, like no one since Sarah Vaughan. She attacked a song like a horn player, much like Ella Fitzgerald. And she played the piano in a fall-off-the-stool-style reminiscent of Ray Charles.
Schuur became the hot potato of Jazz, suddenly "discovered" and passed about after years of gigging in and around her native Washington State. An impromptu 1975 audition for Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen was overheard by Severinsen's drummer Ed Shaughnessy, who invited her to sing a Gospel suite at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Late greats sax player Stan Getz and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie then caught Schuur. Gillespie invited her onstage at the 1979 Monterey Jazz Festival.
After GRP Records executive Larry Rosen heard a Schuur performance at the White House in 1984, he quickly signed the blind singer to a contract. The requisite accolades followed, including numerous Grammy nods. She's since recorded Heart to Heart, a much-lauded record with B.B. King, recorded 11 GRP albums in 13 years, toured the world over and is now firmly in the national conscious as a respected Blues-based Jazz singer and pianist.
There have been demons. Much unlike her aforementioned predecessors, she's battled them privately, though she speaks of them easily. She's been sober for 12 years and in control of an eating disorder for eight months. Those are the big monsters. Mundane things like nursing a broken finger and battling bronchitis sidetrack normal mortals, but they can stall pianists and singers.
The new Schuur takes it in stride. For one, she's got the stability of her five-year marriage to Rocket, a retired aerospace engineer.
"I'm glad to be married, and I'm glad to have the family life that I have," she says.
Further, she's digging in at Concord Jazz, her new label. Friends For Schuur, her Concord debut, is a shimmering release chock full of Pop standards, many featuring the writers or performers (Stephen Bishop on "Red Cab to Manhattan," Grusin on the theme from Tootsie) who originally made the tunes notable.
Normally an organic, almost guttural performer, Schuur says she had no problems with the technology of this new release. For example, Getz's solo was "digitally reintroduced" on "Easy Living," the disc's opener. However, much of the other all-star exchanges were recorded live.
"There's overdubs that needed to be done," Schuur says. "The tune I did with Stephen Bishop, a lot of that interaction was live and a lot of the interaction with Stevie (Wonder) was live, too."
Speaking of Wonder, Friends For Schuur includes a snaky, slowed-down, bedroom Valentine version of Wonder's sugar-coated "I Just Called to Say I Love You," recorded live with Herbie Hancock during Schuur's tribute to Wonder at the Kennedy Center Honors broadcast. "Finally," a tune co-written by Wonder, closes the disc. On it, Wonder originally only wanted to lay down harmonica tracks.
"I don't believe in talking someone into or out of something," she says. "I was of the opinion that he should sing. I said, 'I think it'd be so much more effective if you and I sang the tune together.' "
It's a spooky duet. The two sound eerily like one another, morphing their voices into one strong and soaring rope-like muscle. The project is a testament to Schuur's agility as an assured singer who can transcend and excel in Jazz and Pop without losing integrity or fans.
"It's because I've been exposed to so many types of music," Schuur says. "Of course I listened to Jazz, but I also listened to The Beatles, Elvis Presley, whatever was popular at the time. It's a very eclectic thing."
It's apparent that can be said of her life, her material, her singing style ... or all three simultaneously. Schuur — nicknamed Deedle Babe long ago by her mother — is just a soulful woman. She is the Blues rising.
"Life experiences doled a lot out to me," she says. "It doesn't matter if you're black, white or purple, you've either got soul or you don't."
DIANE SCHUUR headlines the Fifth Annual Crown Jewels of Jazz gala benefit Saturday at Music Hall Ballroom.