Harry Connick, Jr: Connick Timing
Having sold over 25 million records worldwide while earning more Number One albums than any other artist in US Jazz Chart history, iconic New Orleans singer/pianist/arranger Harry Connick, Jr. this month impressively releases his twenty-fourth album, ‘Your Songs’
Consisting of Connick singing familiar songs with a full jazz big-band and string orchestra (with him writing all the orchestration himself), ‘Your Songs’ nevertheless differs from Harry’s many previous projects, in that it represents the first occasion in which he has teamed up with a record company producer - legendary ‘star-maker’ and seasoned industry exec Clive Davis.
With many of the CD’s chosen selections representing signature songs for iconic performers, tracks include versions of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’; Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘Mona Lisa’; and Billy Joel’s ‘Just The Way You Are’. Meanwhile, arrangement-wise some of the album’s most inventive moments arrive with a bossa-tinged take on The Beatles ‘And I Love Her’; an elaborate Broadway-flavoured rendition of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’; plus a swinging gospel-influenced version of Burt Bacharach’s (‘They Long To Be) Close To You’.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana in September 1967, Connick’s musical talents first come to the fore when he learnt the keyboards age three, played publicly at six, and recorded with a local jazz band at 10. However, it was while he was later attending New York’s prestigious Manhattan School Of Music that, in 1987, an industry executive persuaded him to sign with Columbia Records. Following which his musical career at the label has seen him become ranked among the Top 60 best-selling male artists in the USA since 1952, win three Grammy Awards, plus one Emmy Award. Meanwhile, his simultaneously-successful career in acting has found him gracing the big screen via roles in such significant films as 1990’s ‘Memphis Belle’; 1996’s ‘Independence Day’ (with Will Smith); and, most recently, 2009’s ‘New In Town’, in which he prestigiously stars alongside Renee Zellweger.
With ‘Your Songs’ having already attained Pop Top Ten status in both the USA and Australia, an affable and professionally-charming Mr. Connick takes time out of his hectic London promo schedule to tell Pete Lewis all about it, over morning drinks at Old Park Lane’s trendily-minimalist Metropolitan Hotel.
How the concept behind ‘Your Songs’ came about
“Well, it started with me getting a call from Clive Davis. He was asking if I’d be interested in meting with him because he had some ideas. So I went to his office, and he was like ‘What do you think about singing a bunch of really, really famous songs, presenting them in a very accessible, easy way and really featuring your VOCALS as opposed to some of the OTHER things you do like piano-playing or arranging?’… And, with me having previously done some 20-odd records in my OWN way, this looked like an interesting road to go down that I hadn’t been down before. So I said ‘Yeah, let’s give it a TRY!’… So together we began a very collaborative process picking songs and deciding how they were gonna be presented… And it turned out to be a great new experience for me, and something I think I needed at that point.”
How the collaboration between Harry and Clive Davis actually worked in terms of choosing songs and new arrangements
“Well, we’d basically sit across from each other at his desk. He’d be like ‘What do you think about ‘Just The Way You Are’?’… So I’d be like ‘That’s an interesting choice - and what do you think about ‘All The Way’?... And he’d say ‘Oh, THAT’S cool!’… You know, song-wise we just sort of threw ideas around. Then, once we’d picked the songs, I arranged them, let him hear the demo versions of the arrangements... And again he’d be like ‘Well what about doing ‘Mona Lisa’ just a little bit faster?’; or ‘Maybe you could slow that song down a little bit’; or ‘Maybe that song has too many violins on it right now’… You know, we just talked creatively about things. Then I went by myself to the studio - he wasn’t a part of that process - and actually recorded the CD. Then, once I’d mixed it, he again came on board and was like ‘Well, maybe you can bring the vocals up a little louder here’ or whatever... And that was IT! It was just a very fun process!”
Harry’s choice of guest instrumentalists on ‘Your Songs’
“I’ve known both the Marsalis brothers (Branford and Wynton) from my childhood in New Orleans. So, when I could hear a tenor sax solo on ‘All the Way’, I called up Branford. Then, when Clive suggested a trumpet solo for ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’, I called Wynton! You know, I’m lucky enough to have those guys’ numbers on my speed-dial! Then, when I did the arrangement for ‘And I Love You So’, I was looking for a kind of country sound. Like there’s a certain type of guitar-playing that I like. And, because Bryan Sutton is the premier guy for that, I called him and asked him to do it. He agreed - and, though I’d never met him before, we’ve now become friends.”
Duetting with France’s First Lady - one-time supermodel Carla Bruni - on his version of The Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’
“Carla was the idea of the record company, because they were looking for a song that could kinda tie the album into the European market - specifically France. But - though my wife (former supermodel Jill Goodacre) knew Carla professionally from her modelling days - I didn’t actually know much about her MUSIC. So, after I’d listened to it and thought ‘And I Love Her’ might be a nice tune for us to do, I went to Paris - and we sang it live together in the studio! Which was great, because we were like just 10 feet away from each other! So it was a really cool, intimate session.”
Harry’s early background, with his father being District Attorney of New Orleans and his mother (who sadly died when he was 13) a judge
“Well, I grew up in a predominantly-white, straight-up middle-class environment. And yeah, the story that my parents did also own a record store is true - but that was 10 years before I was BORN! You know, they loved music, and that was their source of income to put themselves through law school! So yeah, they were constantly playing music around the house. A lotta Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, classical music… Plus I have an older sister who loved rock & roll and The Beatles… And of course, growing up in New Orleans we had immediate access to all the traditional jazz, which was an IMMENSE influence on me… So I basically started playing just because we had a piano in the house! And from there I just kept on going, using all the opportunities I had around me from just being in New Orleans.”
The famous story that, at just six years old, Harry was playing jazz to drug addicts and prostitutes on New Orleans’ legendary Bourbon Street
“Well, that’s SORT of true! You know, The French Quarter is the centre of New Orleans. So yeah, there is a lot of activity going ON down there. There are prostitutes; there are drug- dealers; there are people involved in different activities... So, when I was down there playing as a child musician, a lotta that stuff was going on. But, while there may have been drug-dealers and prostitutes around and they may have been in the room, at that age I was totally UNAWARE of it!... And even when I WAS old enough to know, they were still just there as part of general society! So, while it may sound dramatic and wonderful to think of this little kid going into these clubs with people shooting heroin all around and turning tricks in the back room, in truth it wasn’t anything LIKE that extreme!”
What first attracted him to playing jazz
“Well, jazz music is hard to play and you have to KNOW a lot to play it. And so it was the quest for that knowledge and experience that first attracted me to it. You know, it was a challenge. Because, just like there are certain types of music where you don’t need to know much and you can play whatever you want, there are also those where you DO need to have knowledge. And, with jazz being one of those, for me it was a big mountain to climb. And so I was interested in DOING that.”
The early history behind Harry’s brief mid-Nineties flirtation with New Orleans funk, via his 1994 Platinum LP ‘She’ plus its 1996 follow-up ‘Star Turtle’
“Well, what we call ‘New Orleans funk’ is that Allen Toussaint and The Meters’ stuff that came around in the late Sixties and Seventies. And, so, with that coinciding with the time I MYSELF was coming around, I grew up hearing a lot of it and it became a huge influence on me! You know, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, The Neville Brothers… A lotta that stuff was real big, and it was just EVERYWHERE! And, especially with me being in The Musicians Union as local piano-player, I’d end up playing EVERY style that was happening in the city at the time! You know, for one gig they might say ‘Wear a suit and be at this place for eight o’clock on Thursday night’ - and I’d go and be playing with a jazz trio... Then the next night I’d go, and it would be a funk group with a guitarist, bass-player and drummer... Then another night I might be playing classical music in a hotel lobby!... So yeah, I played funk along with everything ELSE! And to me it was a lot more groove-based, and harmonically much more contained, than jazz. Which made it much easier to play, but at the same time a lotta FUN! You know, while one of them is like going to Nobu, the other one is like going to McDonalds! But I like doing BOTH!”
The backlash he suffered from jazz purists after recording, and touring, his funk albums
“Well, I don’t know exactly who these ‘jazz purists’ ARE! I mean, there’s some people out there who absolutely CANNOT STAND anything I do, and then there’s other people out there who LOVE what I do... And I can’t spend too much time thinking about EITHER!… But yeah, with the funk albums there was some backlash in terms of bad reviews and stuff. And also there was a lotta confusion amongst the public. In that people would come to my shows expecting a jazz crooner, and I’d show up playing this New Orleans funk - which was unfortunate. Because, you know, when you’re around 25 years old - which I was at the time - you just don’t THINK about stuff like that! So while yeah, I definitely would make another funk album, next time I’d also make sure people do know what to EXPECT! Because you don’t want people spending money on something they don’t want! You know, you don’t wanna manipulate people like that.”
Harry’s involvement in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, by helping set up a Musicians Village in the city
“To be honest, it’s primarily Branford Marsalis’ project. But yeah, we’ve already built 80 homes as part of the village - and there’s also now a big centre for music being constructed there as we speak. It’s called The Ellis Marsalis Centre For Music, and it’s gonna have both internet access plus performance-based teaching facilities. So it’ll be like a big community centre, and we’re really excited about getting it off the ground.”
Whether the strong musical culture of New Orleans is now getting back on track
“Yeah, with it being such a strong, multi-generational society, the musical culture in New Orleans is now getting back on its feet. It’s just that, after Katrina, there was so much physical devastation that it is gonna take a long TIME. I mean, it’s like you have a house and you have some insurance. But then the house gets flooded, and the insurance doesn’t cover the FLOOD! So what do you then do with this worthless piece of real estate that you also have a mortgage on?... You know, it’s very complicated - and there are THOUSANDS of people still dealing with these situations even TODAY. But, while it is a complex issue, the city and its music is getting back on track and it will, in due course, return to its past glory. It’s just purely a matter of time right now.”
Harry’s album ‘Your Songs’ is out now through Columbia Records.
Words PETE LEWIS