Harry Connick Jr. will be home for Christmas — barely. Connick spent much of last month taping his last episodes of “Will & Grace.” This month, he set out on a nationwide big band tour that runs through Dec. 23.
On the hit sitcom, Connick’s character, Dr. Leo Markus, may be willing to put his marriage to Grace at risk by flying off to Guatemala or Cambodia to pursue his passion for medical relief work. But in real life, the 36-year-old Connick is less eager to leave his wife and three daughters — ages 7, 5 and 1 — behind in their suburban New York City home.
Now married for a decade to former Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre, Connick long ago shed that brash, carefree, Sinatra-style persona of his early years.
“Marriage has made me a lot happier and I’m deeply in love with my wife, and I thank God for her every day,” Connick said during an interview in the Sony Music Studios in midtown Manhattan. “And when I started having kids things became dramatically different because I didn’t want to leave home. It’s very difficult for me to be away for extended periods of time.”
“I practice and work hard at my music, but I’m not saving lives here,” said Connick, almost unrecognizable from his suave stage image, wearing black-framed rectangular glasses and a backward New Orleans Saints cap. “I’m having a lot of fun, enjoying my life and trying to raise my children.”
Connick recently released “Harry For The Holidays,” the long-awaited sequel to his multi-platinum 1993 album, “When My Heart Finds Christmas.” On the CD, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s jazz charts, Connick warms up those chilly nights when he croons “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” an intimate performance by his jazz quartet gently embellished by strings.
Mix of traditional and sacred
The album offers a mix of traditional secular and sacred holiday songs, more contemporary fare such as Donny Hathaway’s soulful “This Christmas,” and four Connick originals, highlighted by the lost love lament “Nothin’ New For New Year,” a duet with country music legend George Jones.
“George Jones is my favorite singer and I was quite surprised and honored that he said yes,” said Connick. “I think he’s the most soulful country singer probably of all time.”
Connick’s other originals include a “Frosty the Snowman”-style children’s song, “The Happy Elf,” with brassy big band blasts; the solemn orchestral “I Come With Love,” whose lyrics depict Christ’s life in three phases and reflect Connick’s Catholic faith; and the bouncy “I’m Gonna Be the First One (Up on Christmas Morning),” based on Connick’s childhood frustration of having to wait until everyone else in his family got up to open his presents.
The more familiar holiday songs have been wrapped in fresh new packaging by Connick, who did all the arrangements, orchestrations and conducting. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” has the feel of a New Orleans street parade, “Mary’s Little Boy Child” is set to a calypso beat, and “Silent Night” becomes a gospel hymn.
“There’s certainly a variety of styles on this record, everything from orchestral to big band to New Orleans and R&B ... and it represents a lot of the different styles that influenced me,” said Connick.
This year, fans familiar only with Connick’s acting and singing have had a chance to discover another side due to an unusual arrangement between his record label, Columbia, and the independent jazz label, Marsali Music, founded by Connick’s childhood friend, saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
Columbia will continue to release Connick’s best-selling big band and vocal CDs, while allowing Marsalis Music to put out his less commercial jazz instrumental recordings.
It was like Christmas in July for Connick when Marsalis’ label released “Other Hours,” Connick’s first purely instrumental jazz piano album since 1990 and his first jazz quartet CD ever. It features reinterpretations of 12 tunes written for (though not all included in) Connick’s Tony Award-nominated score for the Broadway musical “Thou Shalt Not,” performed by a combo drawn from Connick’s big band — with saxophonist Charles “Ned” Goold, drummer Arthur Latin and bassist Neal Caine.
Connick welcomed the chance to reconnect with his first love — jazz piano playing, which first brought him to public attention as a teenager before he became a star thanks to the 1989 “When Harry Met Sally” soundtrack.
Connick started playing piano at age three in New Orleans, and went on to sit in with musicians in the French Quarter and study with the noted jazz patriarch, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis.
“I’m able to sometimes express things even more articulately on the piano than I am with singing,” Connick said. “It’s a very comfortable place for me. ... I feel like I could convey whatever emotion I need to through the piano.”
Branford Marsalis says Connick’s skills as a jazz player and composer have been underrated by some jazz critics and musicians who are resentful of his fame and fortune.
“Harry can do whatever he wants because he has that kind of talent. ... and that’s why a lot of people envy him,” said Branford. “He is one of the more creative people that I have ever met.
“Harry’s tunes have very strong melodies that you can sing ... and his solos are very melodic. A lot of jazz musicians talk about technique and harmony, and rarely about melody. ... Harry’s thing has always been melody.”
Connick is focusing on his music for now, and he’ll be back in February for Valentine’s Day with a vocal CD, “Only You,” featuring romantic standards from the ’50s and ’60s.
But all kinds of options remain open for this multi-talented entertainer. He has a development deal with NBC and is considering doing his own sitcom.
“I had such a good time on ‘Will & Grace’ that it sounded like something I wanted to look into,” said Connick. “There’s a lot of questions that have to be answered, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in and it certainly may happen.”