There is good news for Harry Connick Jr fans: his new album, a tribute to the songs of Cole Porter, is his best work since Songs I Heard, released in 2001. In truth, it doesn’t have much competition in that regard, because, after that album, Connick took a series of disappointing musical detours. First, he recorded easy listening albums that were one thing that Connick had never been: dull and boring. Then, he revisited the funk sound of some of his 1990s albums (which I never had an objection to), but the resulting album, Smokey Mary, seemed half-hearted and even regurgitated tracks from Star Turtle to make up its rather meagre running time. Then there were forays into country(ish) and pop. By this time, I had stopped buying Connick albums. Listening to the tracks on Youtube or a streaming service showed me quite clearly that he had given up on the music that made him famous, and therefore I gave up on him.
True Love is a brilliant return to form, and his first release after changing labels to Verve. It is unclear just what made Connick revert back to his earlier style, but it is most welcome, and from the opening bars of Anything Goes many Connick fans (and maybe ex-fans) will give a collective sigh of relief – because this actually sounds like a Harry Connick Jr album. The wonderful thing about Harry’s earlier albums such as Songs I Heard or Blue Light Red Light, is that the arrangements on them were both slightly wacky and instantly recognisable as Connick’s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Connick’s writing for a big band had a style just as recognisable as Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins had. Luckily, the new album doesn’t see any attempt to change that style or to tone it down. If you loved Come By Me, released some twenty years ago, then you will love this.
There are many highlights. For example, the album opens with Anything Goes, with the big band sounding just as it would have done in Connick’s heyday. Vocally, Connick sounds younger than he has done for years. Sure, the voice is a bit darker, and the vibrato slightly wider, but he’s not a twenty-year-old anymore. What shines through this opening number, though, is that he sounds unshackled – and perhaps he is. There is a sense here that a decision has been made to give up on trying to be commercial and reaching out to a wider audience, and of a musician just doing what he wants – and, in this case, it means using some slightly racy alternate lyrics about Grandma going clubbing, extra-marital affairs, and nudist parties.
I Love Paris is even better, with the orchestration and arrangement seemingly influenced by what would have been heard at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s or early 1930s. The chorus taken up by the clarinet seems to cross that early Ellington sound with gypsy jazz, but soon (perhaps too soon) the baton is passed to saxophone, trumpet, bass, piano, drum, and finally trombone solos (with Lucien Barbarin as the guest trombone soloist).
For anyone who has seen Connick live, or who owns the 20, 25, or 30 albums, it is wonderful to have a number here that spotlights his piano playing. Begin the Beguine is bookended by a solo piano rendition of the song, with the band taking centre stage for the central section. This isn’t as epic a piano solo as the ten-minute Avalon on the Swinging Out Live video, but the style and sound is the same – and one wishes that the decision had been made to make the whole track a solo. As it is, with this being the only number without a vocal, it serves as a timely interlude before he swings his way through the remaining four songs.
Of those, True Love and You’re Sensational are the second and third songs here to be pulled out from the soundtrack to High Society (Mind If I Make Love To You was the first), but it’s the album’s finale, You Do Something To Me, which works best out of this final batch of numbers, as Connick’s arrangement has a kitchen-sink approach throwing in influences from his Sinatra-style vocal through to Latin and New Orleans elements in the orchestration.
One can only hope that this is (in the words of Steve Allen) the start of something big. It’s just a shame that it has taken so long to persuade Connick that this is what he should be doing. It is understandable, of course, that artists do want to try new things and go down different avenues (I’ve written a book on Bobby Darin, and if anyone highlights that approach to a music career, it’s him), but the problem with that is that artists now make one album every three years rather than three albums every one year – and you can lose your core audience if you abandon them for years at a time. Given his tour celebrating New Orleans last year, and now the new big band album, the stars seem to be aligning for Connick to make a musical comeback.