Diane 'Deedles' Schuur is well known as a jazz singer and pianist, but few of her followers will know she started out singing country music. 'I did a country [single] when I was 17 years old,' she explains over the phone from her home in Orange County, California. 'Then in my mid-20s I got a lot more into jazz and played a lot of jazz clubs. The first album I did was in 1981 and I've been recording ever since. I have 22 albums out now.'
The latest album takes Schuur - who will be performing in Shanghai on February 18 and Beijing on February 25 - back to her country roots. The Gathering (Vanguard Records) is a collection of country songs cut in Nashville with an all-star cast of guest artists including vocalists Alison Krauss, Vince Gill and Carmella Ramsey, guitarists Mark Knopfler and Larry Carlton, and saxophonist Kirk Whalum.
'I needed another direction,' Schuur says. 'This album was a natural fit for me. All the stars lined up, and nothing was forced. I waited a long time to do this kind of album. Those sessions in Nashville were a gathering of the spirits.'
The album, which she says is 'kind of like a country recording with jazz elements woven into it', was inspired in part by Ray Charles' approach to country music, infusing songs which verge on the saccharine with genuine soul.
Like Charles, with whom she recorded, Schuur is blind. She grew up in Washington State in a jazz-conscious home, listening to Dinah Washington and Duke Ellington. She started singing in clubs as a teenager and got her first big break with a guest spot at the Monterey Jazz Festival with drummer Ed Shaughnessy's band.
Saxophonist Stan Getz heard her, and was impressed: he invited her to join him on some gigs. 'He brought me to the White House in 1982, and I worked with him and with Chick Corea and Dizzy Gillespie. That was a really amazing thing. It was an all-star jazz concert at the White House. It was quite something to work with such legends,' she recalls.
With Getz's support her career took off. Her first album, Deedles, came out in 1984, and she then formed an association with the Count Basie Orchestra, at that time led by Frank Foster.
The 1987 album Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra spent 33 consecutive weeks at No1 on the Billboard jazz chart; it was also notable as the last recording on which long-serving Basie guitarist Freddie Green appeared. 'Freddie was the underpinning of that sound. He didn't solo, but he was very important with the beat of all of those tunes, in conjunction, of course, with bass and drums.'
Schuur has a history of working well with guitarists, evident in the way her vocals respond to Carlton's playing on The Gathering. She also formed a noteworthy association with blues elder statesman B.B. King. 'Collaborating with B.B. King [on the album Heart to Heart] was a big project to do in 1994. I wanted to explore the blues, and my record label at that time, GRP, got together with B.B. King and it worked out very well,' she recalls.
Her Shanghai and Beijing concerts, at which she will be playing piano as well as singing, will be a representative sampling of the musical styles in which she has worked throughout her career. 'There will be a couple of tunes from the country record, but it will be basically things I've done in the past and maybe a couple of things that I haven't,' she says.
Although she has enjoyed the diversion into country, she says it does not mean a radical change in her musical direction, and future albums will be along more familiar lines for long-term fans.
'I'll probably go back to the jazz roots. In fact there's a live recording I did in a nightclub in San Francisco that's currently being mixed, and there's a good possibility that that will be the next thing to come out ... It's going to be a bit like Live in London from 2006, but with material that I haven't recorded before like Land of Make Believe, the Chuck Mangione tune.
'It's pretty much going to be sold on the internet and in the clubs that we work. The record industry has changed a whole lot with the internet now becoming such a big deal. More and more things are being downloaded instantly.'
For those who can't make it to the Schuur concerts, there are two gigs closer to home. Visiting American guitarist Chieli Minucci will perform at Skylark on Thursday (www.skylarklounge.hk); on Saturday, the Pete Moore Band - a funk and soul outfit comprising local players fronted by Australian vocalist Moore - will play Grappa's Cellar (www.elgrande.com.hk).
Three of Schuur's best albums.
Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra (GRP, 1987): a forcefully swinging set from Schuur and the band, including her signature tune, Deedles' Blues. A fine example of a band and singer forming a truly empathetic connection.
Heart to Heart (GRP, 1994): Schuur sings the blues with B.B. King.
Live in London (GR2 Classics, 2006): Schuur in concert with her regular small group of Rod Fleeman (guitar), Scott Steed (double bass) and Reggie Jackson (drums).