Song Champion Harry Connick, Jr. On Why Great Songs Matter

From Cole Porter to Sinatra to “Danny Boy,” “Over The Rainbow,Ave Maria” and Beyond

He’s been a song champion for decades now. As a lyricist, music writer and world-class pianist, few artists in modern times have shown so much love and reverence for great songs and the songwriters who write them, and help us to understand why. He’s also a serious song scholar, as he’s not only a great singer, but a pianist who knows the harmonic and melodic architecture of songs from the inside out, and delights in that exploration. He’s someone who can answer hard questions about music others rarely ponder, such as what makes a melody great, and brilliantly, as he does in the following conversation with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”

Harry Connick, Jr. is most famous for his recordings of the songs from the Great American Songbook, those by legendary songwriters such as Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. The one that matters most to him, though, is Cole Porter, about whom he speaks here with much love. That songbook emerged from the age of melody, when a tune was the thing that propelled a song into our culture more than any one record, singer or performance. But Harry’s got an ecumenical embrace of melodies, and has brought us inspired versions of melodies which came long before this era – such as folk songs and religious songs – all of which we touch on here.

He’s bringing that melodic splendor to the Wynn Las Vegas next week for three nights starting February 26.

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AMERICAN SONGWRITER: We’re so happy to talk to you, because you’ve been a champion of songs for a long time. You’ve brought us some of the greatest songs ever written.

HARRY CONNICK, JR: Thanks. Happy to talk to you.

AS: One thing that connects all the songs you’ve done, whether they are new ones or some very old ones, is beautiful melody. Do you think that is what matters most?

HC: Yeah, I would say that melody is the number one thing that you have a lot to choose from.

Songs have the three kind of elements –  the lyrics, the melody, and the harmony. The harmony, I think you have more leeway with. The lyrics and the melody are pretty set, and I think the melody is really where it’s at. Because sometimes I would sacrifice singing a line or two, a word or two that maybe isn’t relevant to what I’m trying to do. Like when I sing “You’re Sensational”, there’s a reference to Miss Frigidaire in that. As soon as I sing that, for that line, the audience, most of them probably say, “Wait,” if they listen, “What does that mean?”

Which is fair because it’s not a reference that’s been used the last fifty years. But I’ll still sing “You’re Sensational” because of that tune. But I won’t sing a song if it has some melodic things that feel weird to me, I won’t do it.

AS: Any Cole Porter songs that you don’t do for that reason?

HC: No! None. And that’s why Cole Porter is my favorite, it’s because he bats a thousand on that combination.

AS: It makes sense that melody is king for you. As you have brought us some of the most famous melodies there are, even those long before Cole. I was listening to your version of “Ave Maria” today —

HC: Oh gosh, that’s good as it gets.

AS: Yeah. Talk about a great melody. Being Jewish, I’m proud of our Jewish songwriters of course, but we don’t have any “Ave Maria.” It doesn’t get much more beautiful than that.

HC: Yeah. But you know what? My mother was Jewish. So we’re brothers in a sense. And what’s really interesting is when I was doing this deep dive into Cole Porter’s music, I learned that Cole Porter really didn’t come to this show tunes thing until later in his life. Allegedly, one of the things that Irving Berlin told him is, “Just write music that sounds Jewish.”

Listen to “I Love Paris.” You could play that in any klezmer band. So many of these tunes sound like old Russian Jewish folk songs and it’s kind of amazing.

So yeah, you may not have “Ave Maria,” but you still have some pretty good stuff.

AS: We do. Including most of the great Christmas songs! And talking about classic melodies that pre-date even Cole Porter, your version of “Danny Boy” just slays me. That’s such a gorgeous melody, and your recording of it is stunning.

HC: Yeah, you said “Danny Boy”?

AS: Yeah.

HC: Man, that is so weird! This is so weird. I haven’t thought about that tune in so long.

I don’t sing that one anymore. Not because I don’t love it. I just kind of forgot that I did it in a movie. There’s so many tunes and your life moves on and you forget about tunes. And just ten minutes ago a journalist told me about how he liked that song.

But what’s really weird is that I’m taking a different band out on the road for this new tour. It’s a small group, and as an arranger I have to write new parts. You can’t just not play the parts that were there for the bigger band. It’s like if you want to make a smaller house out of a bigger house, you just build a small house. You can’t just knock the roof off and the second floor.

So I picked all these tunes and wrote a whole bunch of charts, and then last night I said, “Maybe I should do one on `Danny Boy.’ Never written a chart on that tune. I never sing that tune.

So last night, literally less than 12 hours ago, I put the last note down on the arrangement. I went to my room, my wife was watching TV. I said, “Jill, I just did a chart on `Danny Boy.’ I said, “What a profound piece of art that is.” And she says, “Oh, I love that song.”

How crazy is that?

AS: Very! Shows how songs connect us. I listened to it many times today and it is enchanting, your solo piano version. It’s so tender, yet powerful. So my question is – why do certain melodies like that last? And why do they reach us so powerfully?

HC: That’s such a great question. Of course, it’s subjective, but the underlying factor probably is tension and release.

I like to compare music to architecture sometimes. If you’re in a big room and you go into a small little cozy room and then you come out and there’s a big room, there’s a sense of breadth that happens, where feel something. You may not understand why.

I break down Cole Porter tunes with my dad a lot. I sit down at the piano and break down songs, and I explain to them why I think they’re great. And the reason I think they are is because this tension is built and then if it’s done properly, it can be released in either a very kind of cliché way with certain kinds of harmonies that are meant to pull your heartstrings.

For example, if you go to the movies, you’ll hear soundtracks that sound very similar because that’s what it does. If a kid’s running down the street, coming home to open presents, there’s a certain flatted fifth major scale thing you can do with the violins that make you think that. So there’s all kinds of things you can do.

But a great song will have more, it will have this tension and release. “This Nearly Was Mine” is a great example of a song that could’ve very easily been a pattern melody, but it’s changed enough not to be.

With Cole Porter, if you look at his forms, he uses AABA forms most of the time. Almost every time, all the As are different. No one does that. You write an A and then you write a bridge, and then on the next A ,it’s the same melody with different lyrics. And on the last one it’s the same melody with different lyrics, maybe with a tiny little bit of ending.

But Cole Porter would change all of them. So, he would put his stake in the ground with his opening motif. And then by the time he got to the end, you feel lost until he recapitulates that, and then you feel this immense sense of relief. But you don’t really know why. It’s all about craftsmanship. It’s pretty cool.

You know what, sometimes it’s other stuff too bring people to melodies. Sometimes in a melody that’s not articulate, it may be about the performance. Like you listen to Freddie Mercury, why does that get to us? It may be for different reasons. So there’s lots of reasons I guess.

But Cole Porter knew what he was doing. I tell my dad that, and my dad says, “But it’s beautiful.”

I said, “Yeah, it’s beautiful because it exists and you know it as that. But he had to choose to do that.”

He said, “Well, what other choice would he have made?”

And I’ll play a choice that’s more common. And he says, “But that’s not the same thing.”

It’s hard to explain. [Cole Porter] knew what he was doing. It’s like Picasso putting the nose on the side of somebody’s head. Why would he do that? Well, there’s very specific reason. I mean, it’s not because he doesn’t know where the nose goes. He’s trying to create whatever it was he was trying to create. And there’s more functionality in music, especially when you’re orchestrating, because you have a responsibility to orchestrate. You can’t just throw notes around.

Somebody asked me one time, and this was a real question. “When you do an album, how do you get the orchestra to play the same thing? Do you just kind of throw some ideas in the pot?”

What?” You can’t even pretend to answer that. So when you arrange an orchestra to a Cole Porter tune, it stops you in your tracks. It’s awesome. It’s really cool.

AS: I think sometimes when people hear such a perfect arrangement or song, they think, “How hard could that be? That’s what, three minutes long?” But to do that takes genius.

HC: Yes I compare music to football too. And when you see an amazing play, you’re like, “I could have done that, that guy was wide open.” Some quarterbacks are amazing, but they can’t get it done. You realize, man, that is extremely hard to do. Sometimes it’s luck.

Sometimes people who know nothing about music just make some of the most heart wrenching, beautiful music ever. But there’s something to be said for the people who really are masters at their craft.

AS: Absolutely. I love how you explain melody, the tension and release, and how certain melodies just move the heart. Do you think that’s intrinsic? There’s so many great songs with these big melodic leaps, like “Over The Rainbow.” Is that something humans just respond to naturally, do you think?

HC: Yeah, probably. I mean, Harold Arlen was one of the all-time great melody writers. Then if you look at it, how it starts and how he ends just the first A section, you can see what he did.

He starts with an octave leap and then he starts getting lower and lower. And then he comes down. That’s a sixth, and then he goes to the sixth below that [sings]… to the fourth… and then the third.

So he starts with a big leap and then gets smaller and then all of a sudden, he’s back open again. And then he goes to this bridge, where he lulls you in with the most simple possible Schumann-esque bridge.  Right? And then, okay, that’s where we’re living right now. Then he does it again. And those are four different chords in one bar.

And then where does that take you? Back to the octave leap. And whoa, but that’s a big jump. Yeah, but it’s familiar at this point, so it’s comforting to be there.

So that’s my two second analysis of that tune. But I share that to show this isn’t random. There’s reasons why those songs work.

Then when you take a lyric that seems to be able to be written by a seventh grader and really, really break it down — I don’t mean take it and read it a few times, I mean, read it, study it, sing it over and over and over and over again, and on the 80th time you’ve sung it you say, “Oh wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Hold on a second. I get it now!” You know? There’s subtleties that are built into these things, it happens all the time with Cole Porter.

Name almost any song of his and I can tell you there’s a lyric that doesn’t mean what you think it means. Or there’s something that I discovered much later. These are famous songs. So none of that is an accident.

AS: Yeah. And, and he, as you know well, was unusual in that he wrote words and music. He was doing both. Which in that era was rare.

HC: Right. And not only that, but he was a monster orchestrator too. He really understood orchestration. I went to the Yale Library and spent a pretty good amount of time there when I was writing my Broadway show for Cole Porter. And I’m flipping through pictures of him at his giant mansion on the canals in Venice, dressed to the nines, and writing these full symphonic orchestrations. I mean, this dude was special. He wasn’t your typical songwriter. He was the top of the top of what he did.

AS: It

It’s great how you just took apart “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” You’re a singer but also a player, and that informs everything you do. You know the genius that went into the writing intimately. Whereas Sinatra and others who inspired you did not come to songs from that perspective–

HC: Well, maybe he could. I don’t want to say he couldn’t. I mean, I know that he was not a piano player and I know that he wasn’t an arranger and orchestrator.

But whatever allowed him to make the choices he made, whether it was a pretty thorough knowledge of harmony or just an insane God-given talent coupled with one of the greatest voices of all time, if not the greatest for that kind of music, it doesn’t really matter.

People talk about Frank’s phrasing all the time. It’s almost a cliche, his phrasing, his phrasing. But they don’t really understand. Most people don’t know what that means. That means you’re completely 100% focused on the lyrics and you will sing them at all costs. And if that means changing a melody to accommodate the sentimental lyric, they do it. But you can’t just change melodies. You have to understand the harmony beneath you. If you’re singing a note and there’s two chords under the same note, you have to know the common tones of those chords, either inherently or by craft, if you want the option to change the melody.

If you want to sound like you don’t know what you’re doing, you can sing whatever you want. But Frank never missed. Listen to him sing “Mood Indigo.” The lyrics say, “You ain’t been blue, no, no, no.” But he’s saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, hold, hold, hold, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Do you know hear I’m saying? You have not been blue till you’ve been blue in this way.” Which is why he says no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. And what notes are you going to use for that? You can’t speak it, or you could, I guess, but he sings it.

So he has to, on the spot, make up a melody that will work with that minor chord to the five chord. (singing) And it works.

AS: Yes. Even the concept of phrasing, like you said, people feel it emotionally, but don’t get the concept-

HC: You feel it and everybody talks about it. It’s said that Tommy Dorsey could circular breathe. Well, anybody who knows music knows that humans can’t do that. We don’t have the ability to circular breathe. So when he would play across the bar line, yeah, maybe he was inspired to hold notes for a certain amount of time. But the real key is that if you’re holding a note and the chords are changing beneath you, you have to know that those two chords contain at least one common note. Or you’re going to be singing something that doesn’t work.

Uh oh, we’re going real deep now! Nobody cares, nobody cares about this stuff, do they?

AS: Songwriters do!

HC: Well, sure, songwriters, yeah! We’re speaking to songwriters.

AS: Do you feel great songs like these will always matter?

HC: I have no way to know. I mean, nine out of ten people, on average, in my life, have no idea who Cole Porter was, absolutely none. So they matter to me, they matter to you.

Some people go to the museum, some people go to the library, read books. Some people have never looked at a piece of art or stepped into a library to try to gather some information. So it’s important to us. I’ve got three young women living in my house, and it’s important to them, but I don’t know how much they’d know about it if it weren’t for me.

But will it last? Of course. Just like any great art will last. It’s just too strong to ever disappear.

AS: Thanks to people like you for keeping it alive. You’re a real champion.

HC: Thank man, I love talking to you. Let’s do it again some time.

Harry Connick will return to the stage at Wynn Las Vegas’ Encore Theater for three nights only in February 2020. On the heels of his latest album, Connick will present his `True Love: An Intimate Performance’ show February 26 – 29, 2020 at Encore Theater.

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