Mail Online By Adrian Thrills November 12, 2009 As one of the world's most distinguished jazz singers and pianists, Harry Connick Jr has won Grammy Awards, written a Broadway musical and held his own playing alongside such virtuosos as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his sax-playing brother Branford. In a parallel career as a Hollywood star, he has also appeared with Renée Zellweger and John Travolta, and had a long-running role in hit U.S. sitcom Will And Grace. But nothing could have prepared 6ft 1in Connick for the most eye-catching collaboration on his latest album, Your Songs - a romantic duet with French First Lady Carla Bruni, recorded in a Parisian studio as Bruni's diminutive husband, President Nicolas Sarkozy, watched from the mixing desk. Harry Connick Jr Southern standard time: Harry Connick Jr gives classic songs a fresh slant 'Working with Carla was amazing - she was great fun to be around,' says Connick, 42, who hooked up with the former model on a sultry bossa-nova rendition of The Beatles' And I Love Her. 'We did the track in a studio beside the Seine, and Carla was very specific about how she wanted it to sound. She knew which parts of the song she wanted to sing. I'd listened to her solo albums before the session and, even though I couldn't understand the French lyrics, I got the impression she was committed to her music - and so it proved.' Carla Bruni performs on TV in 2008 Romantic duet: Connick and Carla Bruni collaborated for the album Your Songs The liaison with Bruni was suggested by American music mogul Clive Davis (who co-produced Your Songs), though Harry was also encouraged to fly to France by his Texan wife, Jill Goodacre, another former model who knew Carla from their catwalk days. 'Jill told me that Carla was clever and charismatic,' Harry continues. 'But it still hit me when her husband arrived to hang out in the studio. I mean, this guy is the President! 'Musicians sometimes complain about living in a goldfish bowl, but Carla has to deal with that on a totally different level. She's very open about her life, though, and had a great way of describing it. She said: "Politics is like showbiz with really bad lighting." ' Your Songs is Connick at his best. A collection of familiar pop numbers given the big-band treatment courtesy of his deft, inventive arrangements, it differs from previous albums in that the singer handed a degree of creative control over to Davis, the man who discovered Whitney Houston and who now looks after the American career of Leona Lewis. Cover albums can be a smokescreen for creative lethargy, but Connick teases new twists from old tunes by referring back to the sheet-music, then building up fresh arrangements: Elton John's Your Song is revamped with a finger-snapping Louisiana jazz groove; another old chestnut, Can't Help Falling In Love With You, benefits from a spellbinding Wynton Marsalis trumpet solo. Chatting about the album in his London hotel, New Orleans-born Connick oozes laid-back Southern charm. The aim, he says, was to arrange the songs around his singing. Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy Three's a crowd: Bruni's husband French President Nicolas Sarkozy (right) also sat in on the recordings 'Clive asked whether I'd be interested in working with him, and I jumped at the chance as I'd never done a collaboration like this before. I'm usually totally hands-on. I'm not going to sing Just The Way You Are any better than Billy Joel. His version is perfect. But if you treat a song simply as a piece of music, you can put your own stamp on it.' Connick now lives in Connecticut with Jill and the couple's three daughters - Georgia, Sarah and Charlotte - but his New Orleans roots run deep. The son of a chief district attorney (Harry senior), he grew up listening to local heroes the Neville Brothers and Professor Longhair, and cut his teeth as a teenage piano prodigy in the vibrant French Quarter. U.S. singer Harry Connick Jr plays the piano during a concert Hitting the big time: Connick studied piano from the age of 13 'On Bourbon Street, there would be strip clubs and jazz bars. But, even in my early teens, I was allowed to play, as long as they had a music stage. My parents were supportive. Deep down, my daddy wanted to be doing what I was doing. My mother died when I was 13, but she'd been passionate about music. She always joked she wanted to be Beethoven's mother.' From the age of 13, Connick studied piano with Ellis Marsalis, the father of Wynton and Branford and one of the few New Orleans musicians to play modern jazz rather than Dixieland. A tough taskmaster, he ensured that Harry steered clear of the city's more dubious temptations. 'Working with Ellis, you needed your wits about you,' says Connick. 'His musical ability is off the scale, so I had to bring my A-game to class every week and not screw around. 'In my teens, I saw people acting strangely in the clubs. I asked my dad about the little cigarettes they were smoking. He made me aware of the drug scene and told me not to get into it. Anyway, I was determined to be a musician, so I couldn't turn up to see Ellis Marsalis drunk or stoned. I didn't go down that road.' After further study at the Manhattan School Of Music, Connick signed his first record deal at 18 and cut two jazz albums before hitting the big time in 1989 with the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally, a record that 'changed everything' and set him on his way to 25 million album sales. Around this time, he also met Jill, although the couple waited five years before getting married. 'I had strong feelings for Jill from day one,' he says. 'But marriage was an important step, so we didn't rush into it. Looking back, I wish we'd done it sooner.' As well as touring the world, Connick moved into film, making his screen debut in Memphis Belle before appearing in Independence Day and Little Man Tate. In 2001, he turned to theatre, writing the score for the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not. But when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Connick organised an NBC-sponsored telethon (featuring Faith Hill and Kanye West) to help the victims. Harry Connick Jr and Renee Zellweger in film, New In Town Comedy: Harry Connick Jr and Renée Zellweger in a scene from the film, New In Town Four years on, his commitment to restoring his hometown's musical heritage remains. Working with Branford Marsalis, he has overseen plans for a Musicians' Village housing 80 displaced families and is also planning to build a new music centre. 'New Orleans is thriving again,' he says. 'Some areas still need a bit of work, but it's chugging along nicely. I have a lot invested in the city, emotionally and historically. My dad is still there and I feel an obligation to help.' Elsewhere, Connick continues to juggle music, theatre and film. He recently starred with Renée Zellweger in the romantic comedy New In Town and is planning to write for Broadway again. For now, though, music is the priority and UK dates are planned for next spring. 'I never think about how I'm going to juggle everything,' he says. 'I tend to take one day at a time, but I'm definitely going back on the road.' • YOUR SONGS is out now. Click here to view the article in full.