By: George Varga
At 42, Harry Connick, Jr., hasn’t come close to doing it all. But he’s done more than enough to create confusion among some of his fans, as befits a veteran film and TV actor, Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical star and multiple Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, pianist and bandleader with album sales of more than 25 million over the past two decades.
“I just want to be remembered, man. I don’t care how, and I don’t care what people know me for,” said the New Orleans-born Connick.
“People will ask me: ‘What are you doing in San Diego?’ I’ll say: ‘I’m on a concert tour.’ They’ll ask: ‘What do you play?’ I’ll answer: ‘Piano.’ Then, they’ll say: ‘Piano? We thought you played a doctor on ‘Will & Grace.'”
Connick indeed had a recurring guest role as Dr. Leo Markus, the philandering husband (and then ex-husband) of Debra Messing’s Grace Adler on “Will & Grace.” He’s also co-starred in more than a dozen feature films, including hits (“Independence Day,” “Hope Floats”) and misses (“Wayward Son,” “Copycat”), and starred in such hit Broadway musicals as “Pajama Game” and “Thou Shalt Not.”
Then, there’s his enduring career as a performing and recording artist (his debut album, “Dixieland Plus,” came out when he was just 9 and featured him alongside some of New Orleans’ top trad-jazz artists).
Now a happily married father of three daughters (ages 7 to 13), he also created the software for computerized music stands, in which the arrangements for songs appear on an illuminated screen, not bulky sheets of paper, and can be changed with the touch of a button.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Connick was instrumental in organizing a national telethon that aired on NBC and featured everyone from Faith Hill and Tim McGraw to Mike Myers and Kanye West. He then teamed with jazz sax great (and fellow Big Easy native and friend) Branford Marsalis to spearhead the funding and construction of Musicians’ Village, a Habitat for Humanity community in New Orleans for musicians displaced by Katrina.
Given his success in so many different realms, one can only wonder: Is there anything Connick isn’t good at doing?
“Oh, man, it’s not about being good at it,” he replied. “Branford (Marsalis) and I were talking not long ago, and he was teasing me, saying ‘Man, you have to practice what you’re not good at.’ Because we’d done a record (2005’s ‘Harry and Branford’). And when you play with somebody in that (duo) format — and the other person is Branford — you have to bring your ‘A’ game, because there’s nowhere to hide.”
“What was the question again?” he asked. “If you think it’s Freudian that, of everything you’ve asked me so far, I forgot that question, well, I have so many things to learn. And people who are not serious about art don’t understand that. They say: ‘Oh, come on, you’re great.’ Ask any artist or journalist who really knows about the creative process, and they all say the same thing: ‘It’s a journey.’ Philosophies and approaches are changing all the time. That’s what’s exciting to me.”
Including, for the record, Connick’s own approach to making an album.
Earlier this month, he began a tour to promote his 25th and latest release, “Your Songs,” not with a big band or an orchestra but with a smaller, pared-down group. It’s his first album to be produced by Clive Davis, the legendary record industry mogul who has worked closely with Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston, Santana and many more, dating back to Janis Joplin in the 1960s.
Connick, who usually oversees every facet of his albums, was approached by Davis. He proposed Connick do an album of classic hit songs popularized by such icons as Nat “King” Cole, Elvis Presley, Billy Joel, Elton John and The Beatles, whose ballad “And I Love Her” features a vocal duet with Carla Bruni Sarkosy (the first lady of France and a former model pal of Connick’s wife, Jill Goodacre).
Davis had very specific concepts regarding the songs, tempos, instrumentation and arrangements. He was also adamant that “Your Songs” generally steer clear of jazz, although Connick was still able to include brief solos by Marsalis and his trumpet-playing brother Wynton (whose father, New Orleans jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, was one of Connick’s first piano teachers).
Davis and Connick have since become “dear friends.” But the process of working together was a challenge for both of them.
“It went against everything I thought creatively, but I did it because it was an exercise,” said Connick, a gifted singer who is well aware that some reviews have dismissed “Your Songs” for veering perilously close to easy-listening music.
“Somebody read me an article that said this album is beneath me and my talent level. I laughed and said: ‘They don’t know what it takes to be in a (recording) studio. …’ Clive and I were cool. He said things I didn’t agree with, and I said things he didn’t agree with. But collaborations rarely happen without any argument.”
As for performing all of the songs from his new album live, Connick isn’t sure yet.
“I’ve got to be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t know if I can sing (The Carpenters’) ‘Close to You’ six times a week. I could sing (the Nat ‘King’ Cole) ‘Mona Lisa’ six times a week, because that’s a much more complex song. … My manager tells me all the time to keep working on my body of work and stay true to what I think, and that’s what I do.”
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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