Blue Notes: Harry Connick Jnr

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 4:49pm

I don't watch American Idol and so missed Harry Connick Jnr's appearance as a "mentor" earlier this month.

However, I hear that he politely told the contestants and judges a few home truths about performing standards from The Great American Songbook - a subject he knows more about than most.

He said it was a good idea to understand what the lyrics were about, and that performers had to know an immaculately crafted song very well before taking liberties with the melody. Both principles, you might think, are obvious, but few up-and-coming singers seem to be aware of them.

That advice to respect the music and work on the craft - rather than the usual empty exhortations to "be yourself" and "sing what you feel" from judges of such TV contests - seems to have rocked the boat in talent-show land. Good for Connick.

He has certainly practised what he preaches. It was singing standards of the sort the American Idol contestants were mauling that made his name, and won him his first Grammy at the age of 22.

Connick's career breakthrough came with the soundtrack for Rob Reiner's 1989 comedy When Harry Met Sally. The album went double platinum and did much to create the atmosphere of the film.

He had already been recording professionally since he was 10, mostly instrumentally, having first made his mark as a piano prodigy. A native of New Orleans, he took lessons from Ellis Marsalis and James Booker, and learned to play classical music as well as jazz.

After When Harry Met Sally, Connick's next couple of albums emphasised his vocals, but he also played piano on them and, as well as interpreting standards with notable flair, emerged as a gifted songwriter.

Going into the '90s he began to alternate vocal albums with purely instrumental projects, maintaining a presence in both the pop and jazz charts. He also stressed his New Orleans roots. His 1994 album, She, was an out-and-out New Orleans funk set for which he enlisted The Meters rhythm section of bassist George Porter Jnr and drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste.

She and its follow up, Star Turtle, were not well received by some, but sold respectably enough to allow him to stick to his guns.

He kept working with big bands and orchestras, crooning standards and his own songs, but returning to New Orleans grooves, mixing the two on 2001's 30. Connick's 2005 duet album with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Occasion, was well received by jazz fans.

For Connick, like the Marsalis brothers and many others from New Orleans who achieved fame and fortune outside the city, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 provided a reason to get re-engaged with his home town.

As well as wading into the floodwaters during the rescue effort, he became one of the city's most prominent and effective fundraisers.

This year he is releasing two CDs close together once again. Out now is Smokey Mary, based on the sound of The Meters, and featuring a star-studded cast of the city's A-list musicians including Porter, Branford Marsalis and slide guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth.

It is a fine slice of authentic New Orleans funk, although perhaps a little over-produced.

Next month sees the release of Every Man Should Know, which he says is his most personal collection of lyrics to date, and features Branford Marsalis and his brother Wynton on trumpet. The other musicians are a mix of New Orleans and Nashville country players.

Connick continues to develop, while staying close to his musical roots, and seems to get better all the time. There might be a lesson there for the American Idol contestants.

This is a good week for live music, starting today at 5.45pm with the Funky Music Bash at Grappa's Cellar, featuring four local bands, Hot Chopsuey, Catfish Kings, Hinabeya and Helter Skelter.

The City Jazz Festival previewed in this column a couple of weeks ago also starts on Tuesday.

Take Three

Three albums on which Harry Connick Jnr demonstrates how to approach The Great American Songbook properly.

  • 25 (1992, Sony): jazz greats bassist Ray Brown and pianist and mentor Ellis Marsalis guest on a standards set, which includes Stardust, This Time The Dream's On Me, and After You've Gone.



  • 30 (recorded 1998/released 2001, Sony): for the second time, Connick celebrates a birthday with a standards set, this time including New Orleans staples such as I'm Walkin' and Junco Partner alongside Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter's Don't Fence Me In and Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's I'll Only Miss Her When I Think Of Her.



  • In Concert On Broadway (2011, Sony): available in CD and DVD formats, separately or together, here Connick tackles vintage and modern standards live, with the help of Branford and Wynton Marsalis, and another New Orleans star trumpeter, Leroy Jones.