A Conversation With ... Harry Connick

During the later years of American Idol, I lost all interest in watching this overblown warbling contest with tug-the-heart warm-up stories and the big dream sell...I’ve got stars in my eyes, I see crowds of adoring fans, I see builders breaking ground for my 25,000 square foot palatial estate. If ever a show failed to deliver, it was this one.

Hordes and hordes of aspiring singers lined up for blocks, city-by-city, from June 2002 to April 2016 and if I remember correctly, millions laid it out there and here’s who walked away with a bit of serious gold and worthless silver: Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert. I’m sure there is more, but on this Labour day weekend morning, that’s all that comes to mind.

Was this really a positive experience...or a showboating sham? Is it those bloated moments that certify artistry, or the small ones? The unexpected, the unplanned.

I truly respect Harry Connick Jr., the most authentic judge of talent American Idol ever experienced. Connick actually mentored and tried to go deeper than any of the previous judges. He didn’t call anyone “dawg”, cry bogus tears, rip emotional flesh or demean like sardonic judge Simon Cowell - the “arrogant nasty” sitting in judgement most years of the series.

Early nineties, Connick played Toronto in various configurations from big band to small group. I’m playing top of the CN Tower with vocalist Liberty Silver; Vancouver’s brilliant Campbell Ryga on alto sax and drummer Archie Alleyne, when somewhere during our second set, a group of young men in suits walk up to the bandstand and ask to sit in. I’m thinking this is a corporate event and who are these guys? It was Harry Connick’s horn section, dropping by after playing Massey Hall and looking to jam. But of course...maybe a tune or so. No, they hung the rest of the evening and did they ever play. We sounded like a small big band, and damn, they looked super fine in those stage suits.

Late nineties, after a rousing concert during Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, I decide to catch the last set of the Rex Hotel. I had one roll of Delta 3200 film, seriously grainy black and white. It was singer Melissa Stylianou’s night and a slim crowd.

I situate myself down front and snap a couple frames, when four or five guys surface from darkness and arrange their horn cases next to them. One approaches the stage and asks to sit in. Stylianou obliges. It was the second coming of the Harry Connick horn section - ready to jam. How quickly a bandstand regenerates and takes on a new life when an event such as this  occurs.

I’m snapping away, happen to look towards the club entrance and spot a taxi pull up. A guy in a baseball cap gets out, then slyly glides through the front door. He ambles in and sits in front of the band. A song passes when someone asks Melissa if she minds letting the guy in the baseball cap sit in. That he does and with all the grace and class of a well-bred Southern gentleman. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Harry Connick Jr..

If this had been a Kanye West, a Chris Brown or anyone of the ordained woodenheads of the now generation, the occasion would have been all about them. Instead, Connick quietly walked on stage, asked Melissa what she was going to play and assumed a secondary role behind the grand piano. Stylianou could explain in more detail what transpired on the bandstand, yet I will say the chemistry was truly magic.

The event was all about Melissa. Never once did Connick or his band overblow, showboat or in anyway make this about them. It was a classic moment and one in a young singer’s life that far exceeds the fakery and soul-killing moments invested in these reality singalong shows.

The most moving moment of the set came when Stylianou consulted with Connick on a tune and turned to the audience and said, “Let me speak with my music director.” Priceless!

Years back, I caught up with Connick and talked music in the lobby of the Royal York Hotel. First time through, he provided generic answers. Then he pauses, and asks...“Are you a musician?” I say yes, and then he says, “Then start that recorder again and let’s talk to each other like musicians.”

I asked him about the heavy schedule, movie work, the endless travel and constant demands...and if he needed be behind a piano to compose.

“No, I don’t work at the piano. I work away from with regular manuscript and a pencil, writing out the arrangement and then turn it over to a copyist. It’s the same whether I’m writing for big band or orchestra: I make any necessary changes when we run through the arrangement. I haven’t had any formal instruction in orchestration. I learned out of necessity. Two weeks before my Christmas album, I found out that the person who was supposed to do the orchestrations couldn’t do them. So I decided to do them myself.

"I sat down and thought about the sounds. For example, I knew what a bassoon sounded like. Then I thought about the combinations. The challenge eventually inspired me to do more orchestrations. You have to have musical knowledge, but if you have that, it’s not that complicated.”

I asked him about what he does when he drops back into his old New Orleans haunts.

“I like to walk around the French Quarter. You know how they say, smell is the most associative sense. When you smell something like an old eraser or the paste you used in school, you go back. When I walk around the French Quarter and smell the aroma and see the clubs, it brings it back home. It’s an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia.”

I was curious if there was a recording in time that defined his playing or approach to music.

“You ask great questions. A lot of things have done that for me. If you put Erroll Garner on, there’s a very good chance I’ll be at the piano in five minutes because I have to figure out what he’s doing. James Booker will do that to me. Earl Hines, same thing. I’m a piano player who knows what he wants to hear and these men laid it all out for me.”





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