Harry Connick Jr speaks about his new album, Your Songs, on which he revisits classic and well-known tunes.
If you're searching for the epitome of old-school cool, look no further than Harry Connick Jr. Part musician, part matinee idol, the multi-million-album-selling singer has been called the new Sinatra and has made the rare crossover from jazz to mainstream success. Sitting in a Park Lane hotel in London on an unseasonably sunny autumn morning, he looks as if he's just stepped from one of his own album covers as we discuss the nature of fame, songcraft and the release of his new album, Your Songs. What is not on the menu is any backchat about the infamous Michael Jackson blackface "tribute" on an Australian television programme when Connick served as guest judge. He is loathe to see the controversy drag on beyond its 15 minutes, apart from reiterating: "Where I come from, blackface is a very specific and very derogatory thing."
For his new album, the 42-year-old New Orleans native (his father was the district attorney for the Parish of Orleans for many years) is remoulding some of the old masters of popular song such as Besame Mucho, Mona Lisa, All The Way and Close To You. His 19-strong band and some stellar guests, including Wynton and Branford Marsalis and the French first lady, Carla Bruni, give the familiar songs a classy refit. It all began, he says, as many things do: with a phone call.
"Clive Davis rang up and said: 'I'm interested in working with you. Would you like to talk about it?'" Connick says, with a good dollop of The Big Easy running through his smooth and smoky voice. (Davis, of course, is the music business Svengali who signed the likes of Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston Alicia Keys and Leona Lewis in his 40-year career, and has been behind Houston's remarkable recent comeback.)
"I thought he was going to say: 'You've got to work with Jay-Z' or something. I didn't know what he was going to say," Connick laughs. "I hadn't met him. I didn't know what he did. I didn't know what producers really did, because I'd never worked with one before." Davis told Connick to carry on as usual - as his own producer and arranger - "but to really think about singing and the songs", Connick says. "He said: 'You have a tendency to be too hip for the room. Sometimes the arrangements can be a little inaccessible. Put your voice front and centre, and the songs have to be really familiar.' I said: 'It sounds great.'"
When the two of them started talking tunes, Connick says, "he got very specific. Every song had to be very popular. He was very adamant about that". They both picked songs they liked and met halfway, discarding what they couldn't agree on. The result includes classics from Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It also recasts Elton John's Your Song in a sumptuous big-band setting. John would surely appreciate the quality of the furnishings.
"For me it's the performances that stand out," Connick says. "Like Wynton Marsalis's solo on I Can't Help Falling In Love With You, the Elvis tune. I just love hearing that solo. It's so simple and beautiful." The album also features Branford Marsalis on saxophone on the opening track, All of Me. "I've known both the Marsalis brothers my whole life, and to have both of them playing on this record is really cool," Connick says.
If there is an absence of contemporary songs on the album, it's not down to lack of quality, Connick says, but a fundamental change in songcraft. "I don't think there is less talent than there was 20, 40, or 60 years ago," he says, "but the styles have changed. It's not as much about a particular melody. We looked for new songs, but they're really hard to find. The more modern you get, the more difficult it is to separate melody from the interpretation of the performer. There's a lot of melisma and ornamentation that's put in so that you can't work out what the original melody is. If you listen to a Cole Porter song, it's very clear what the melody is. But a lot of these new songs come down the pike already interpreted beyond the point where you can decipher the melody."
Something of a musical prodigy, Connick first put his fingers to a keyboard when he was three. Before his 10th birthday, he had recorded his first studio sessions with a jazz band, performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3 with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra and duetted with the ragtime pianist and composer Eubie Blake on I'm Just Wild About Harry. After he signed with Columbia in 1987, Connick's retro sound brought him more or less immediate success. Since his eponymously titled debut was recorded in one afternoon in the Concordia College recital hall in Bronxville, New York (with a quartet including the legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter), he has put his name to 25 albums, ranging from soundtracks (When Harry Met Sally won him his first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal) to Christmas albums, New Orleans jazz sets and selections from the Great American Songbook.
One of the key music teachers of his youth was Ellis Marsalis (Branford and Wynton's father), under whom he studied at the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts. The second teacher was New Orleans itself, a city whose rich musical traditions were devastated by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As a native son, Connick was one of the first in line to lend a helping hand to re-establish The Big Easy's pride and priceless, perilously damaged cultural heritage.
"Branford Marsalis and I started a project called the Musicians' Village in New Orleans, along with Habitat for Humanity, a charity that helps people build their own low-income housing. Branford and I decided to create 80 homes and to try to entice the displaced musicians back to New Orleans because the culture is so important down there and the musical culture had been so severely damaged. We ended up getting 80 houses and 80 families. So we're building a $10 million (Dh36.7m) centre for music, where the older musicians can pass on their knowledge to younger musicians. That was something we took for granted growing up, just going down to the French Quarter and having these musicians there. It was an opportunity you just took for granted. But now it's not like that so much and we're glad we have it."
Almost uniquely in an age where economics dictate the small-band format (it's one reason the trio is such a popular jazz format), Connick has led his big band for almost 20 years. "As I get older I get more appreciative," he says. "When I was 25 I just assumed, well - you know the composer Felix Mendelssohn? He had his own orchestra when he was a kid because he was real wealthy, and his dad gave him access to an orchestra. I felt like that, because I was successful early on. Some people who come upon money at an early age buy fancy sports cars or whatever, but I was like: 'I wanna tour with my band.'"
There are definitely more lucrative ways of being a musician, he admits, "but it was important for me and my writing to keep that going. And as I get older it really is a great luxury. I don't know how long it'll last, but I really enjoy it, man. Every time I play with them, I'm glad. I'm very grateful". Between the albums and tours, Connick has found the time for roles in a dozen films (alongside the likes of Jodie Foster, Hilary Swank and Renée Zellweger) and as the character of Leo Markus, Grace's faithless husband in the long-running US sitcom Will & Grace.
"Fame is really different as an actor," he says. "There's an inaccessibility to musicians. In movies and music people don't approach you quite as readily. It's almost as if you're bigger than life on a movie screen or at a concert, whereas with TV, Will & Grace fans come up and touch you. It's a physical thing. You're in their living room, so they feel like you're part of the family. And they speak as if you're in character - like: 'How could you do that to Grace?'"
Despite the actor-singer's work experience with leading ladies, pairing up with Bruni on the album's final track - a feather-light bossa nova take on The Beatles' And I Love Her sung in English and French - was something of a coup, and not only for US-French relations. "I kind of knew she sang," Connick grins, "but my wife [the former Victoria's Secret model Jill Goodacre, to whom he has been married for 15 years] worked with Carla years ago and is a fan of her music. So I listened and thought: 'This could be really interesting.'
"I talked to her about it before I wrote the arrangement, then went to Paris and we spent about half an hour discussing the translation, and she was 10 feet away, singing. We sang live, just like we're sitting here. I think the take that's on there is the first take. But it was great, man, and I really I dug her whole approach. She's really smart. That's the thing. She's extremely confident. She knows what she wants to sound like, and I like people who are like that."
Connick grins like the man with all the luck. "I could see myself singing with her again, easily." Your Songs is out now on Columbia Records. Connick's world tour begins in January.