What Harry Connick Jr. learned about himself while paying tribute to Cole Porter

Grammy- and Emmy-winning musician and actor Harry Connick Jr. makes his debut for Verve Records with his new album, True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter.

He has sold more than 30 million albums during a stellar career that spans more than three decades in music, film, TV and on both concert and Broadway stages. His new project puts the focus on his talents not only as a pianist and a singer, but also as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor. His voice is in fine form and manages to get every nuance of these songs, from the widely known Just One of Those Things to the lesser known Mind If I Make Love to You.

During a visit to Toronto, Harry Connick Jr. dropped by JAZZ.FM91 and joined us on the air for a chat about the new recording, how it came together, and what he learned in the process.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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Congratulations on this major undertaking.

Thanks. Yeah, it was pretty big. After deciding that I wanted to do a songbook album with all Cole Porter’s music, that’s when the real work began, having to figure out what songs I wanted to play — which is hard in itself, because as everybody knows, he’s written so many great songs. I selected ones that really meant something to me, and just started with a blank canvas, deconstructing these songs and thinking about how I wanted to arrange them and orchestrate them. It’s very time-consuming but it’s also very fun, because you’re working with such perfect material.

Listening to the album, the arrangements remind me of Billy May and Nelson Riddle’s work with Sinatra during the Capitol years. But at the same time, there’s certainly your own personal signature on it. When it came to sitting down and arranging these songs, and making them your own, what was the thought process?

It was just thinking, what are these songs about, and what sort of arrangements will help support the lyrics and my interpretation of the lyrics? You’re dead-on when you mention people like Billy May and Nelson Riddle, and the list goes on and on. Those arrangers have undoubtedly had an impact on me, but I never really set out to make it sound a certain way. I think when you put a big band together and record a big band, it’s probable that you’re going to hear an influence, and that’s certainly the case with my writing. But I definitely was just trying to write things that were coming from the songs themselves. If the song was about a one-night stand, I needed to write something that sounded like that. It kind of wrote itself. You come up with different motifs that you can run throughout, and try to do interesting things harmonically and rhythmically, and it’s a lot of fun.

You did a little bit of research on Cole Porter at Yale. Do you want to share any insights that you were surprised by?

I’ve written and directed a Broadway show, opening on Dec. 7. There’s a lot of other media in the show besides just music, so I really did a deep dive into Cole Porter and his life. I went to the Yale library, where they have a huge amount of Cole Porter stuff from 1891 on. It was crazy, because I got a chance to really see what this guy was all about. One thing that really surprised me was I didn’t realize the extent to which he was an orchestrator himself. Cole Porter was the musician’s musician. He understood arranging, he understood orchestration. That’s kind of rare in that world. First of all, it’s rare to find somebody who writes the words and the music, but somebody who knows that much about music to be able to orchestrate it. I mean, he was hanging out with Starveling and Picasso, and it’s amazing to think about who this guy was, and how his lifestyle and his experience informed his music.

Did you learn anything about yourself while going through this process of putting this Cole Porter project together?

One thing I learned is that — and let me preface this by saying that I’m not comparing myself to any of these people — almost any jazz musician, or classical musician, or writer, or painter, goes through a very similar process from the time they’re young to when they start to get older. It would be oversimplifying to call it that, but the result of the process is different. Look at Picasso’s paintings: Here’s a guy who could paint a portrait of you that looked like a photograph if he wanted to, but because of his artistic choices, things started to melt down to the bare necessities. At this point in my life at 52, when I write, I try to combine the highest level of music with the highest level of accessibility. Ultimately, we’re playing this music for people. And I like that idea. It’s getting easier for me to understand how to do things that can satisfy both camps, including myself.

You mentioned that you’re bringing this to Broadway. Are you playing the entire album?

It’s pretty much the whole record, but this is very theatrical. It’s not a concert, like people sit down and I come out and sing a bunch of Cole Porter songs. There are huge sets, there’s choreography, there’s film, there are 28 musicians on stage. It’s a big, giant production, but it is also a concert. It’s something I’ve never seen before, and hopefully people will come and get an experience that they haven’t had. The interesting thing is that the songs themselves are driving the show … The intent is for people to hear them in a way that they haven’t heard them before.

The prelude to Begin the Beguine, you’re doing a solo piece that’s got a bit of a Latin tinge to it, but it also has that New Orleans flavour. Are you paying homage to anybody there?

I am in a sense, and I’m also trying to take it to the next level. There are some things in there that I haven’t really heard before on New Orleans piano, but you can hear a ton of James Booker in there, for sure. I’m old enough now that I should be contributing, so I wanted to play some things that are a little different.