Diane Schuur is laughing. Even over the phone from San Jose, there’s no mistaking her alto-pitched tones--clean, clear and melodious, even as she giggles.
“My boyfriend just kissed me,” she explained. “He walked by and kissed me on the forehead. I’m sorry. What were you asking me?”
Happiness is a relatively new commodity in the 40-year-old singer’s life. Even as her career took off in the mid-'80s, she found herself dealing with her weight, drinking and relationship problems. Now, dozens of pounds lighter and sober for five years, she says she is the healthiest she’s ever been.
“Things are different,” she said. “I get to gigs on time. I’m not constantly recovering from hangovers. I’m much more direct with people in my feelings. Jet lag doesn’t affect me as seriously as it did. Life isn’t such a roller coaster now. Everything is better.”
Schuur, who appears tonight with the Count Basie Orchestra at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, has dealt with her problems through 12-step programs and determination. But music also has played a soothing role.
“There was a time two years ago, when I was coming out of a bad relationship, that two songs really got to me. One was ' ‘Round Midnight.’ The other was ‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.’ I was singing that song at the Blue Note while going through closure with that person, who happened to be in the audience, and I was almost in tears. But sometimes that’s the only way to do it: Find some kind of closure and go forward.”
Song has always provided an emotional outlet for Schuur, who is blind. As a child, she often retreated to her closet, where she would sing away her woes. Her mother, who died when Schuur was 13, listened to Duke Ellington recordings, and her father played piano, often with his daughter at his side. She began her singing career at age 9.
A 1975 audition for drummer Ed Shaughnessy’s band and subsequent performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival brought her instant notoriety. She was signed to GRP Records in 1984 and has released nine albums, including the 1988 Grammy-winner “Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra.”
That album originally was scheduled to be recorded during a tour of Japan with the orchestra. But food poisoning struck Schuur and several members of the Basie band, delaying recording until the band returned to Los Angeles.
“It was a pretty miserable experience,” Schuur said. “I was very fat at the time, and this Japanese doctor and nurse were trying to give me a shot of some kind, and they couldn’t find a vein in my arm because I was so big. And Frank (Foster, leader of the Basie Orchestra) was there and said, ‘Deedles (Schuur’s nickname), you’d make a sad junkie.”
To Foster, who was a member of the Count’s orchestra when it included its most visible vocalist, Joe Williams, “Diane has all the qualities needed to sing with the Basie band.
“She’s got the requisite strong feeling for the blues, and I won’t mention a good sense of time or a quality voice, because that’s obvious,” he said. “But you need an ability to relate to the audience, not just get up there cold to be received without putting out some gregarious, extroverted, genuine behavior. And Diane Schuur does all these things.”
Not only has Schuur sung the blues with the Basie band, but her latest recording also finds her singing with blues legend B.B. King. “I enjoy both small and large settings. . . . Sure, they’re different niches,” Schuur said. “With the big band, you have to make sure all the charts are together, and you have to follow them just so. In the smaller setting (with King), you get to stretch out on the solos more. But basically, it’s the same. When you’re having fun, you’re having fun.”
And as far as her new relationship is going, Schuur couldn’t be happier.
“I had actually given up hope of having another relationship, had really started to concentrate on my self-improvement,” she said. “Every time (in the past) when I had gotten into a relationship, it was unhealthy, and I was tired of repeating this same pattern. So when this current relationship happened, I was a bit unprepared. But he’s a sweetheart.”
And, once again, Diane Schuur is giggling.
* Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra, directed by Frank Foster, appear tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (800) 300-4345. 8 p.m. $29 to $45.