Oh, Harry: The multifaceted Harry Connick Jr. talks about jazz, the Big Easy, and all things music

By
Harry Connick Jr.
Harry Connick Jr. | photo courtesy of the artist

There will always be two Harry Connick Jr.’s. There is the one who, since the 2000s, has made himself well-known and beloved in sit-coms (the first go-round of Will & Grace), children’s film fare (A Dolphin’s Tale), as judge and foil to J-Lo (American Idol), and as a talk show host (Harry).

The other Connick Jr. is a consummate musician, arranger, orchestrator and vocalist whose love and encyclopedic knowledge of Tin Pan Alley standards and the New Orleans music of his past and present make him a treasure still, even if you’ve paying more attention to the mass mediated Harry. The second, better one will play at the Mann Center on June 16 – celebrating New Orleans’ 300th birthday – for his first area live appearance in well over a decade. The second, better one is who The Key spoke with, exclusively, about music.

The Key: You made several sturdy jazz albums before you turned 12. What do you recall about them?

Harry Connick Jr.: They were definitely similar experiences in that I was in the studio being supported so greatly by the musicians I was recoding with. And they were all heroes of mine — New Orleans cats such as trumpeter Teddy Riley and bassist Walter Payton — and incredibly nice people who were willing to go beyond the job description of being hired session musicians. Instead, they really shepherded me through the process. When I look back at those early recordings, it is those guys that made those albums truly special – that was an amazing experience.

The Key: One thing I have witnessed through many albums and tours is that you are big on that hero thing, continuing your New Orleans lineage. What is the deal – is it a matter of paying back or making sure that the often unsung get more… sung?

HCJ: It’s just the way it is. When you are a young musician in New Orleans, you often find yourself in situation where you’re playing with your elders or someone that you idolize. I was a member of the New Orleans musicians union from the time that I was 14 – still am – and I would show up for gigs with God knows who. You could show up to play a wedding reception and it would be me and the drummer from the Meters, Zigaboo Modeliste, and Walter Washington, one of the greatest guitar players. They were my idols, but they were working musicians. As a byproduct of that, as I became more successful, shedding light on some of these same characters was important, some of whom may not have received the recognition they deserved in their career.

The Key: The rush of acclaim and fame that came with When Harry Met Sally and We are in Love, where you captured Sinatra’s swing for new audiences: was that scary for you or were you a confident, well-heeled player by then, and this was just one more chapter?

HCJ: I don’t know how well-heeled I truly was at that time – I was still young – but, I do know that it wasn’t scary ether. It was almost like watching snowboarders in the Olympics and you wonder if it is terrifying for them to make those jumps? They’re not terrified. They’ve done it their whole lives and it is exhilarating for them. That is what they have always trained to do,. It was the same thing for me – I had trained for that moment, knew that material. It was bigger and newer for sure, but I wasn’t challenged by the experience of it. I was challenged being the best musician I could be in those circumstances. And I welcomed those opportunities, as I had worked so hard for them.

The Key: Celebrating New Orleans as you’re doing with your new live show, and albums such as 2013’s Smokey Mary that has a lot of original music of yours dedicated to that sound: what is essential in writing a signature New Orleans-ish song that maintains the tradition AND is new, advances the form, AND shows your voice?

HCJ: That’s such a great question. Being in touch with your own identity is first and foremost. I usually don’t even think about writing a song with a particular signature, New Orleans or otherwise. I write tunes, and the influences I have accrued throughout the years come out – to a point. Because some time I might write a song that will have a particular beat to it, that feels like a New Orleans song. Ultimately I write songs with music and lyrics, and they are what they are. I have never been a person to really say that I want something more pointed. I did know that I wanted Smokey Mary was about where I grew up, and so I recorded it down there, and it had that feel. And I used local musicians because they understood the subtleties and nuances of that music – they differentiate what they do there from other places-– but it all ultimately stems from me trying to write songs that I think are good. Period.

The Key: Your most recent album, That Would Be Me, is interesting in its textures, where you chose to go. A lot of Michael McDonald-ish electric pianos. A lot of soul and pop. Why go there? What was running through your head?

HCJ: I started with great songs, but had have never worked with these two producers before, Butch Walker and Eg White. Fact is, I never really worked with a producer. I usually do the job myself, so I wanted that experience. But I worked with Butch and Eg, one if Nashville, one in London. I went in with open ears and an open mind. Let’s see where it goes. And where it went, was awesome.

The Key: Why at this point in your career, though, did you decide that you wanted someone else’s ears on your music?

HCJ: It was suggested to me by somebody at the record label AND I did it at this time precisely because I have done so many records this one way – I don’t know how many albums I done but I have produced all of them. With the exception of two of them, I have arranged and orchestrated them, I have always edited and produced, it was nice to step into a new experience. You get to bounce ideas off someone else. I have never done that. And these were two men that I admire a lot.

The Key: Another experience where you bounced something off of someone else: how was it co-composing and starring in The Sting musical?

HCJ: It was great. No, I hadn’t had that exact experience, though I have written score stuff for Broadway, and sung other people’s music on stage. The Sting, however, was a different deal, and I liked that challenge. It’s an amazing team of creatives who are all very smart and different. Within that context, the best idea wins. That’s cool to collaborate in a room with people you like and respect – very different from going into a studio and doing mostly everything yourself. That is yet another angle in to creativity.

The Key: Was there another element of yourself that you had to add or subtract from your usual kit bag to work on The Sting as such?

HJC: You have to be very unselfish when you’re writing for Broadway. You can’t think of songs as stand-alone – you have to advance a storyline. You’re writing for context. You really have to leave your ego at the door.

The Key: What instrument do you feel as if you follow in a live setting? I would guess piano, but also know that you’re a rhythm guy?

HCJ: That’s a great question, man. I drive the rhythm from my piano, but I have nothing but great relationships with everyone in my band, so that’s a hard call. They have unique and specific ideas of harmony and pulse, and I am intimately acquainted with each of their individual philosophies on such – so I’m kinda following all of them and responding to all of them in kind. It’s like four people speaking four different languages, but we’re talking about the same topic and everyone understands. It’s really cool to go out there on stage with that behind you.

The Key: We’ve heard your voice in dozens of different circumstances. How has that instrument matured?

HCJ: It’s fascinating to have a different instrument than I started with. I have always done the best that I could and tried to make the best music for my voice. Fortunately, I think my voice has gotten better, that it can do more, and has gotten stronger. I dig it.

Harry Connick Jr. performs live at The Mann Center on Saturday, June 16th; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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