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Harry Connick Jr.
Among the many joys of the holiday season is the opportunity to savor a wealth of wonderful Christmas music. It takes a rare artist like Harry Connick, Jr., however, to both honor the tradition evoked by cherished sacred and secular holiday songs and personalize the effort with new interpretations and his own new compositions. Connick does just that on his new Columbia disc Harry for the Holidays, which is sure to be one of the most acclaimed and enjoyed efforts of the year.
Connick has taken this particular sleigh ride before. His 1993 album, When My Heart Finds Christmas, is among the most popular holiday collections of the past decade. After ten years of hearing requests for a sequel, the multi-talented singer/pianist/composer/arranger decided that the time was right. “It wasn’t about the success of the last Christmas album as much as the opportunity to record some more of the great Christmas songs,” he explains. “After ten years, it was time to do it again.”
Harry for the Holidays began with a search for songs he liked. “I wasn’t really looking for any specific balance,” he notes. “I just start with the melodies, and then look at the lyrics to make sure that they work for me.” This time out, the process has yielded a generous program of 16 songs, ranging from the frolicking joy of “Frosty the Snowman” to the solemn grandeur of “Silent Night,” with four of Connick’s own originals along the way.
Family input played a part in the creation of the album. “My kids didn’t influence me that much,” he laughs, “because if they had their way all of the serious songs would be saved for the next Christmas record and I’d just do `Frosty’ and `Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ over and over again. But `Frosty’ does bring back personal memories, because in my pre-cable youth it was always a big night when the `Frosty’ cartoon came on the TV. And `This Christmas’ is included because my wife Jill loves that song, and loves an earlier version that I had done [with Branford Marsalis, on the Columbia anthology A Jazzy Wonderland]. I was reluctant to do it again, but you know how it goes, you must obey.”
Among Connick’s own contributions to the program is a duet with George Jones on “Nothing New for New Year (for Me). “He’s an amazing talent,” Connick says of the legendary country singer. “I don’t know how someone can be that musical naturally. The sound of his voice is like something sent from God. George got the winning lottery ticket when it comes to a voice.” Connick’s other compositions touch on different seasonal emotions. “`I Come with Love’ is a Catholic layman’s view of Christ’s life in three stages, paralleling the Holy Trinity. It was actually based on the second Omen movie, the scene where the boy realized that he was the Antichrist, and how he must have felt. The song is about what Christ felt when he found out that he was different. `I’m Gonna Be the First One (Up on Christmas Morning)’ is just from personal experience. I was always the first one up as a kid, but I still couldn’t open any presents until everyone else got up. I wanted to capture that `hurry up and wait’ thing that kids go through every Christmas. And `The Happy Elf’ is another kid’s song that came from thinking about how cool it would be to work in Santa’s shop.”
All of these songs – for that matter, all of Harry for the Holidays – are graced by Connick arrangements for his stellar big band or orchestrations for a full complement of strings and winds. “My last Christmas album was the first time I had ever written orchestral arrangements,” says Connick, “and I cried when I found out that I had figured it out. I’m still young as an arranger, and I’m trying to learn as I go. My writing is subconsciously influenced by the great arrangers I heard when I was focused on great singers and instrumentalists, like that shout chorus in `Blue Christmas,’ which I can see my Dad moving his body to.” At the same time, Connick can maneuver the strings on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and raise images of Beethoven. “Different songs call for different treatments,” he acknowledges. “The only version of `Blue Christmas’ I knew was Elvis’ version, and although there were numerous ways to interpret it, I thought it was best to leave it – except for that shout chorus. On `Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,’ in contrast, I wanted the music to reflect my version of Bethlehem, sort of globally Middle Eastern.”
Every one of Connick’s notions is interpreted flawlessly by the accompanying musicians, with a special nod going to the members of his dynamic big band, who excel in both ensemble and solo passages. “That sax section is like having four wide receivers on a football team who can all catch the ball,” Connick marvels, in a compliment that could equally apply to his talented brass and rhythm players.
Harry for the Holidays is just the latest chapter in Connick’s celebrated and uncommonly diverse career. Growing up in New Orleans, he studied piano with keyboard legends James Booker and Ellis Marsalis. A performer from the age of five who made his first jazz album at age ten, Connick moved to New York at age 18 and quickly made his Columbia Records debut at the head of a jazz trio. His next effort, 20, added Connick’s vocals to the mix, and his singing was also featured on his first big-band album, the multi-platinum When Harry Met Sally.
In the ‘90s, the full scope of Connick’s artistry emerged. His albums featured original instrumental and vocal music (Lofty’s Roach Soufflé and We are in Love, respectively), explored funk (She and Star Turtle) and romantic balladry (To See You), and then pulled all of these strands together in the decade-ending tour de force Come by Me. Recent years have seen further triumphs, including his Grammy-winning reflection on favorite music of his youth, Songs I Heard, and his recent jazz quartet triumph Other Hours. This last disc, the first of a “Connick on Piano” series to be released by Marsalis Music, contains instrumental versions of the Tony-nominated songs Connick composed for the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not.
At the same time, Harry Connick, Jr. the actor has made a major impact in theatrical films and on television. His Hollywood credits include Memphis Belle, Hope Floats and Independence Day, while his small-screen triumphs include the ABC production of South Pacific and his recurring role on NBC’s Will & Grace.
All of these achievements – not to mention his album sales of over 20 million, his three Grammy awards and his nominations for Tony, Emmy, Oscar, Golden Globe and Cable Ace Awards - reflect a creative energy that make Harry Connick, Jr. unique in the world of contemporary entertainment. Harry for the Holidays is the latest example of that energy and creativity, a burst of seasonal joy that should carry Connick’s world of fans well into the New Year.
Harry Connick, Jr. grew up on the silver screen. His film debut came at the age of 23 opposite Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz and John Lithgow in the 1990 drama Memphis Belle, and he appeared the following year in Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster's directorial debut and an "intrinsically poignant project" according to the Washington Post. His next role, as a homicidal sociopath in 1995's Copycat, was "scarily effective" said the New York Times. For this film, the Tampa Tribune named him "the most memorable" in a cast that included Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver. Connick continued to display his breadth with a memorable role in 1996's Independence Day, one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
"There's no doubting Connick's impact," said the L.A. Times for his role in Hope Floats alongside Sandra Bullock. This compelling leading man performance was recognized with Connick's 1999 Blockbuster Award nomination for Favorite Actor - Drama/Romance. In addition, 1999 saw Connick lend his voice-over talents to the critically acclaimed features My Dog Skip and the animated The Iron Giant. For his work in the Linda Yellen directed improvisational film, The Simian Line, Connick turned in what Variety termed an "achingly honest" performance for his role with Lynn Redgrave.
First reaching mass audiences as a pianist, singer and bandleader, Connick has secured his place in the public eye as a renaissance man and versatile entertainer. His love of music and performing stems back to his childhood in New Orleans, where he studied piano with such luminaries as James Booker and Ellis Marsalis. He first performed publicly at age six, appeared on his first jazz recording at age ten, and released his self-titled major label debut for Columbia Records at 19, within a year of graduating from high school and moving to New York City. His second album, 20, performed with a jazz trio, introduced audiences to his magnificent voice.
Appropriately, his first widespread success as a musician came from the world of film when director Rob Reiner asked Connick to contribute the score to his 1989 smash When Harry Met Sally. The film's success led to Connick's first multi-platinum album, which was also his first Big Band recording. Following releases showcased Connick's original compositions, went on to top the jazz charts, and crossed over into high ranks on the pop charts as well. In addition to his numerous film roles, Connick spent much of the 90's creating groundbreaking albums and shows no signs of slowing. His most recent Big Band release, Come By Me, was "easily the crowning achievement of his career" said the San Francisco Chronicle, and it debuted at #1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart and reigned there for several months. Connick's career has been studded with awards and recognition, including four multi-platinum and three platinum albums, three gold albums, two Grammy Awards and Emmy, Cable Ace, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. A true American icon, there are few artists of Harry Connick, Jr.'s stature.
The year 2001 promises to be a rich one for Connick, even as he continues filming Life Without Dick. He most recently wrapped production on the ABC television movie South Pacific, which will air on March 26th. Connick plays Lt. Cable in this classic musical starring Glenn Close, and his role features stirring musical performances including "Younger Than Springtime." In addition to his film and TV projects, Connick continues to break new ground, working alongside Tony-award-winning choreographer and director Susan Stroman. Their collaboration, Thou Shalt Not, marks Connick's debut as a composer/arranger and lyricist for live theatre for the adaptation of Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin. Set in Connick's hometown of New Orleans, the story is that of a shopgirl who conspires with her lover to kill her husband. Thou Shalt Not was presented as a workshop at the Lincoln Center Theatre in October of 2000 and is slated for a Broadway debut in the coming year.
Given the stunning pace of his work and the extent of his accomplishments, it is easy to forget that Harry Connick, Jr. is a young man in his early thirties, still finding new ways to express himself artistically. "Right now, I'm just taking my time to keep learning my craft," he says. Connick is a truly gifted entertainer, and if his creative path continues apace, his best is yet to come.
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