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NPRThursday, November 14, 2019
"If you think of music like Legos," Harry Connick Jr. says, Cole Porter's music "was like the greatest set of Legos, ever. You could build anything because the songs were so structurally sound."
Courtesy of the artist
For more than 30 years, Harry Connick Jr. has been putting out music that evokes the legacy of Frank Sinatra and other jazz icons. Now, he's back with a new album, True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter, and an accompanying Broadway show. NPR's David Greene visited the singer in Hollywood's Capitol Studios, where Connick demonstrated a few Cole Porter classics on the piano and talked about the musician's enduring influence.
The singer and pianist says he's loved Porter's music since he was a little kid. Connick's latest album pays tribute to an enduring influence.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Oh, yeah. Now we're cooking. For more than 30 years, Harry Connick Jr. has been swinging like a modern-day Frank Sinatra.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS")
HARRY CONNICK JR: (Singing) It was just one of those things, just one of those crazy flings.
GREENE: Since he burst onto the scene, he has put out dozens of albums. He's also written and performed musicals. He's made movies. And now he's back with a new album and Broadway show. This work celebrates the songs of that prolific writer of 20th-century musicals - Cole Porter.
CONNICK JR: (Singing) A trip to the moon on gossamer wings.
GREENE: To hear more about his project, I met up with Connick at Hollywood's iconic Capitol Studios, where some of his album was recorded. He was seated in front of a piano, and he was telling me about how he's loved Cole Porter since he was a little kid.
CONNICK JR: If you think of music like Legos, like, his music was like the greatest set of Legos ever, where you could build anything because it was so - the songs were so structurally sound. They were so much fun to improvise on. Even though I didn't understand it the way I understand it now, I had incredible fulfillment playing his music. Like, listen to this. This is just so weird. "I Love Paris," right?
And then all of a sudden, he goes to a major key.
So it's two halves of that song. There's a minor half and a major half. And like, my mother was Jewish, so when you heard a melody like...
CONNICK JR: ...There's just this pure American brilliance. The lyrics - he goes...
(Playing piano, singing) I love Paris in the springtime. I love Paris in the fall. I love Paris in the winter, when it drizzles. I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles.
I mean, it's so simple...
GREENE: But complicated - right? - because that song, like, you think he loves the city. It's actually - you realize at the end, it's all about...
CONNICK JR: (Unintelligible).
GREENE: ...A woman. It's not about Paris.
CONNICK JR: Right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE PARIS")
CONNICK JR: (Singing) I love Paris. Why, oh, why do I love Paris? Because my love is near.
GREENE: Well, most of these songs were written to fit into the plot of a musical...
CONNICK JR: That's right.
GREENE: ...But it seems like so many of them can just live stand-alone as well, right?
CONNICK JR: That's exactly right. That's an astute point because many songs that come from shows are so plot-specific. It takes a really special lyricist to be able to write songs like that that function in a show but also can function, as you said, stand-alone outside of the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY CONNICK JR. SONG, "IT HAD TO BE YOU")
GREENE: So the first time I remember your voice entering my head and staying there - I mean, just in a beautiful way - was "When Harry Met Sally"...
CONNICK JR: Oh, cool.
GREENE: ...Which is now 30 years, which is crazy.
CONNICK JR: I know. It really is hard to believe.
GREENE: It's crazy. And you kind of burst on to the stage in a big way. You're 22 - I mean, just young guy singing these jazz standards.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT HAD TO BE YOU")
CONNICK JR: (Singing) It had to be you. It had to be you. I wandered around and finally found the somebody who...
GREENE: How do you reflect back 30 years now to that moment, what you did in that film?
CONNICK JR: That was an incredible opportunity for me. I had a couple of albums out. And long story short, Rob Reiner, who directed "When Harry Met Sally," was looking for incidental music to go underneath some of the scenes. So while Billy Crystal's talking to Meg Ryan, it might have been...
And I just went in the studio and played while the film was going on. And I said, that's easy to do.
GREENE: You're just watching the film and you're, like, messing around.
CONNICK JR: Yeah, there's a huge screen. And there would be a red line that would go across the screen. And when it got to the end, you started playing what you thought the scene should have.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")
MEG RYAN: (As Sally Allbright) Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?
BILLY CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) Are we becoming friends now?
CONNICK JR: And then, like, Ray Charles had a song on the album and Sinatra and Ella and all of these different people. But as the contract process went on, they dropped out for whatever reason, and I kept getting more songs. So the album isn't exactly a soundtrack album; it's just me singing all the songs from the movie. And I mean, my whole life changed. I just remember going from selling, you know, 10,000 or 20,000 albums, which was huge for a young jazz musician...
CONNICK JR: ...To selling millions of albums in a couple of weeks or months. And so that - my whole life changed as a result of that.
GREENE: In a good way?
CONNICK JR: Oh, yeah. No, it was amazing. All I've ever wanted to do was entertain and sing and play for people. And that film gave me the chance to do it. I mean, I went from playing with just me or me and my bass player to having a big band on stage. I had to learn how to write for a big band. I had to learn a lot of things. So it was all good. It was all the start of the greatest career I could have ever asked for.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTHING GOES")
CONNICK JR: (Singing) In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. But now God knows, anything goes.
GREENE: You're still playing the old songs. Is it take a different skill or determination to stay engaged when you're fascinated by things that are from another era?
CONNICK JR: It's almost like architecture. You could buy a house that was built in 1900, and it's probably better built than a lot of the houses now. In other words, if I can sing a song to you and make you feel something, there's nothing that's nostalgic about that unless you grew up with it for the first time. So it's not that I'm attracted to old music; I'm attracted to quality music.
I think people who don't know me sometimes think I walk around in like a zoot suit and, like, you know, a hat and a cigarette. And you know, I don't really have any affinity for that time because I'm - I was born in '67, so I grew up with disco and Queen and Led Zeppelin and stuff like that. So that's what nostalgia is for me.
But it's not about the styles. It's not about the fact that these songs were written then. It's the fact that these songs were written better. That's what I like.
GREENE: Harry Connick Jr., a real pleasure. Thank you.
CONNICK JR: Thanks. Great talking to you. Thanks for having me.
GREENE: You, too.
CONNICK JR: (Singing) Well, the world has gone mad today... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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