Over the past two decades, Harry Connick, Jr. has taken a very hands-on approach to his recording career. The multi-talented Connick has called the shots at the numerous phases of his album projects – writing original material or picking songs, choosing the ensemble settings and writing arrangements, singing and playing piano, and with the aid of co-producer and longtime confidant, Tracey Freeman, overseeing mixing and mastering. Whether performing the American Songbook or in the jazz, blues or funk idiom, the process has yielded consistent success, not to mention worldwide sales of over 25 million discs.
For Your Songs, his newest collection on Columbia Records, Connick expands his vision to encompass 14 classic popular songs; his instrumental pallet through a striking integration of a string orchestra and his swinging Big Band; and his basic approach to recording.
Clive Davis, the legendary producer and Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment, is the driving force behind the change. "The term `producer' is normally kind of nebulous in my environment," Connick says. "He might set up the sessions and ensure that we get the best possible sound. Tracey has done that, and acted as a sounding board; but I always made all the musical decisions. As my co-producer on this album, Clive was very involved in the overall concept, song selection and choice of tempos. And, although he didn't come to the studio when we recorded, he gave me lots of comments on the mixes."
It was Davis who suggested that the album be built around pop classics. "He wanted to feature me as a singer," Connick notes, "and we threw ideas for songs back and forth for four or five months. He had ideas on the arrangements as well, including a couple that I would have never thought of. It was a new role for me, and it was invigorating."
The songs that Connick and Davis selected include some of the best known work of singer/songwriters Billy Joel ("Just the Way You Are"), Lennon-McCartney ("And I Love Her") and Elton John ("Your Song"), as well as classics made immortal by the likes of Nat Cole ("Mona Lisa"), Frank Sinatra ("All the Way") and Elvis Presley ("Can't Help Falling in Love with You"). "Bésame Mucho," sung in both Spanish and English, is a long-time favorite of Connick's father, while "Some Enchanted Evening" was included after Connick heard it performed in the current revival of South Pacific. Regardless of the source, however, Connick approached each title with his usual musicality and interpretive strength.
"Although I have wrestled with this for some time, I don't think that anyone's version of a great song, however classic, should preclude my singing it," he insists. "I respect the originals, but believe that there is always room for another interpretation. I take each song in its rawest form, as it appears on the sheet music, and go from there."
When it came to choosing the proper tempos, Davis' input was critical. "The one thing that Clive repeatedly pounded into my brain, which I had been thinking about myself for a while, was how easy it is for tempos to become too slow. He made an interesting point one day when he said that `it's not always about a performance.' In other words, don't let a song get so into your head that your version only has personal meaning. He really kept my focus on the songs."
Davis also suggested that Connick orchestrate the album, rather than turning arranging chores over to someone else. "I was fine with that, and even kind of excited," Connick admits. "To use a film analogy, it would have been like an actor showing up on a movie set, knowing that the director and producer had worried about everything else. But Clive persuaded me to do it myself." It was a wise decision, as Connick displays a unique and subtle manner of balancing the sensitivity of strings and the punch of his big band. "I have never really been able to do that kind of writing throughout an entire record," he acknowledges. "It's a more spacious approach, with the orchestra in service to the singing; and it was a kick to sing over those charts."
Connick's vocals are also in service to the songs, as are the contributions of his featured guests Branford Marsalis (heard on "All the Way"), Wynton Marsalis ("Can't Help Falling in Love with You" and "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)") and Bryan Sutton ("Can't Help Falling in Love with You" and "And I Love You So"), as well as longtime Connick Big Band stalwarts Leroy Jones ("(They Long to Be) Close to You") and Jerry Weldon ("Mona Lisa"). "As a singer, I'm pretty straight with the melodies, and when the soloists asked me what I wanted them to do, I explained that this record is supposed to be straight. Playing a melody straight can be deceptively hard. As my bass player Neal Caine pointed out, the album was a great lesson in discipline, and a great way to understand your function in the overall process. On this record, as a pianist, there were times when I would go to play my part with the tape rolling and hardly play anything, because it was all already there."
What was already there, of course, was a collection of timeless songs, collaboration with a legendary producer, and the unprecedented talent that is Harry Connick, Jr., monumental parts that together have created the even greater whole that is Your Songs.