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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 7

Harry Connick Jr - A Natural Approach

by Paul Serralheiro / April 26, 2004

Talking to Harry Connick Jr, one can hear that Southern drawl of his native New Orleans and all of that relaxed candour he brings to his singing, which explains much of his popular appeal. This Crescent City musician has the kind of folksy, unpretentious commitment to entertainment that marks the styles of many of that city's famous jazz musicians, both past and present.

A precocious talent to say the least, Connick has been playing piano and performing since the age of five. By the late 80s he emerged on the scene as a kind of nouveau-swing singer, issuing best sellers that would find their way into the jazz section of larger record stores. With one foot in the jazz world, Connick Jr reaches out to listeners who can't tell Coleman Hawkins from John Coltrane, but relate to the direct nature of a song instead. Judging from his comments gleaned during a recent phone interview, this is the wavelength on which this very popular musician functions best.

While in Toronto, the singer/pianist took a moment between two television interviews to field a few questions. Though laconic, he was still thoughtful enough in his frank responses and general account of his performing activities. After first talking about a 20-city tour last December aimed at promoting his recording Harry for the Holidays, I asked him how he keeps fit as a singer with such a heavy work schedule.

"For me the main thing is getting enough sleep and drinking lots of water. I don't do anything specific to maintain my voice, I try to sing properly on stage and take care of myself physically. That seems to do the trick." This very unfettered attitude also carries over when he's not on the road, and for that matter, he follows no real practice regimen. For him, the best way of staying in shape is just to be out there working. "When I'm off the road, I don't sing that much or play piano, but out on tour I'm doing one or both of them every night, and that's enough to suit my needs."

Although well known in show business, he is seen by many as a jazzman, a label he does not necessarily abide by. "Let's be frank: I don't really call myself a jazz singer, and even if I considered myself a jazz musician, I certainly wouldn't classify the way I sing as jazz. Actually, I don't know what to call it, but I'm glad there are people like you to give it a name!"

The jazzman part of Connick, however, is best heard when he digs in at the piano. Asked about this other part of his musical persona, he states, "The instrumental records really give me a chance to stretch out and deal with some more complicated jazz issues." A case in point is his release Other Hours, an all-instrumental affair for jazz quartet. Connick explains first that its title cut was a song contained in the Broadway Show Thou Shalt Not, for which he wrote the music. "I just wanted to deal with all of those songs on an instrumental level, and recorded them like that with my band (Ned Goold, tenor sax; Neal Caine, bass; Arthur Lattin II, drums). It was cool, and a nice chance to explore some territory I hadn't really been to before."

For a musician so imbued by tradition and who claims such great influences as Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, and Duke Ellington, keeping that kind of music alive is at the heart of what he does. And this is what he will be doing as of April, when he embarks on a new tour to promote his current release Only You, one that will be focused on ballads, "but with other things mixed in too, just to prevent the show from becoming too boring".

His work as a composer and arranger is probably less well known, and Other Hours is a good example of these skills. Actually, he handled most of the orchestration chores. He has been pursuing this aspect for the last 12 years or so, doing all arrangements and orchestrations, even conducting. It gives him the peace of mind of knowing how it's going to sound before he steps into the studio.

Conversely, there is the magic of live performance, which enables him to make things sound different every night, his choice of songs affected by the circumstances surrounding a performance: "I take each night as a completely separate event, so it's not like we're playing the same show over and over again. Crowds are different, so we tell different stories. We take it one day at a time, and you never know what's going to happen either."

(c) La Scena Musicale