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Harry Connick, Jr.: Direct Hits

Real jazz artists don’t do sitcoms. Real jazz artists don’t star in romantic comedies or revivals of frothy Broadway musicals. Real jazz artists don’t cover Elton John or Elvis or the Carpenters. So would argue some hardcore purists. But they’d be stymied by Harry Connick Jr., who has done all these things plus a whole lot more and, true to his New Orleans jazz roots, still manages to keep it real.

When, precisely two decades ago, Connick’s participation in the mega-selling When Harry Met Sally… soundtrack ignited an initial shockwave of popularity, his similarity to the young Frank Sinatra was widely noted. Connick was 22 at the time, about the same age as Sinatra when he zoomed to stardom after joining the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Connick’s dashing good looks and inveterate cockiness helped fuel the Sinatra comparisons, as did his overtly stated desire to use music as the foundation for building a multi-faceted showbiz career.

Over the next 20 years, Connick more than achieved that goal, finding time between the steady release of 23 albums to star in more than a dozen films (extending the full range from artsy flicks like Little Man Tate to the blockbuster Independence Day and, in true Sinatra style, his fair share of dogs), earn a recurring role on the hit TV comedy Will & Grace, and headline a Tony-winning Broadway revival of The Pajama Game. Musically he has surpassed Sinatra, not in popularity or sales, but in creative dexterity. Connick was, like Nat King Cole, a masterful pianist well before he emerged as an august vocalist. He’s as comfortable with big bands as he is at New Orleans funk and jazz sessions with lifelong confreres Wynton and Branford Marsalis. He’s sharpened his songwriting skills and has established himself as a top-drawer arranger, orchestrator and conductor.

Now, with the release of Your Songs (Columbia), an intentionally low-key collection of mostly pop covers, Connick seems to be returning to his Sinatra-wannabe roots. “I had two specific goals in mind,” says Connick, “to [record] very, very familiar songs and to feature my vocals as opposed to jazz solos or crazy arrangements. I just wanted to do a CD that was very accessible.” Connick celebrated his 42nd birthday just a couple of weeks prior to the album’s release. Sinatra turned 42 in 1957, a landmark year that saw the release of five top-selling albums, the launch of his second TV series and standout performances in diametrically opposed film roles, as ne’er-do-well saloon singer Joey Evans in Pal Joey and as deeply troubled vocalist-turned-comedian Joe E. Lewis in The Joker Is Wild.

The Connick of ’09 seems remarkably akin to the Sinatra of ’57: a multitalented, multi-discipline performer entering mid-career at the top of his game, assured yet neither complacent nor rutted, and professionally fearless. “There’s no reason to be scared,” shrugs Connick, “as long as you’re properly prepared. We’re talking about a subjective deal. If you threw me into an operating room with a scalpel and said, ‘Save this guy’s life,’ I’d be real scared because I would have no idea what I was doing. But I do know what I’m doing in music, and I like what I’m doing, so what’s there to be scared of? You go onstage and you sing. The only thing I take really seriously is the art itself; the performance stuff is easy. That’s just my personality. I’m very fearless in creative situations. That doesn’t mean what I’m doing is good, but I certainly am not afraid to try.”

Interestingly, Connick opens Your Songs with “All the Way.” The Academy Award winner, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for The Joker Is Wild, was Sinatra’s single biggest success of ’57 and ranks high among his most indelible hits. From the beginning of his solo career, Sinatra had the wisdom to surround himself with the best arrangers in the business. In the case of “All the Way” and much of his ’57 output, it was the brilliantly intuitive Nelson Riddle, but Axel Stordahl, Billy May, Neal Hefti and Johnny Mandel all made significant contributions to the Sinatra sound. Though Connick never relies on outside assistance with arranging, the smooth lushness and relaxed sophistication of Your Songs does suggest inspiration from the classic work of Riddle, May and their brethren.

“I’m sure I’ve been influenced by Nelson and Billy May and Claus Ogerman,” says Connick, “but it’s a different kind of influence than on, say, my piano playing. When I was 20 years old I was trying to sound like Duke Ellington, I was trying to sound like Monk, I was trying to sound like Earl Hines. But with arranging, I’m just trying to write stuff that works for each particular song. I know there has to be inherent influence there, but I’m not thinking, ‘Hey, let me go and get my Nelson bag.'”

Though Connick did single-handedly oversee all arranging, orchestrating and conducting for Your Songs, he agreed, for the first time ever, to cede a degree of artistic control. Enter Clive Davis, the larger-than-life, septuagenarian impresario whose hit-making legerdemain has helped shape the careers of everyone from Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen to Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys.

“I’ve never collaborated with anyone,” says Connick, “so it took a little getting used to. Clive came in and said, ‘We know you can do this, and we know you can do that, but let’s just feature you as a singer. Don’t take any left turns with the arrangements. Make ’em straightforward.’ He said it was important to preserve my musical identity, which is why he thought it was a good idea that I still wrote the arrangements and did the orchestrations. But he said it shouldn’t come at the cost of distracting from the vocals. He said, ‘You really need to be front and center on these vocals,’ and I said, ‘Cool.’ He picked some songs, I came up with some and that’s kinda how we got started.”

The complete profile is available in the December issue of JazzTimes.

Originally Published