Among the many joys of the holiday season is the opportunity to savor a wealth of wonderful Christmas music. It takes a rare artist like Harry Connick, Jr., to both honor the tradition evoked by cherished, sacred and secular holiday songs and personalize the effort with his own new interpretations and compositions. Harry does just that on his new Columbia disc Harry for the Holidays, which is sure to be one of the most acclaimed and enjoyed efforts of the year.
Harry has taken this particular sleigh ride before. His 1993 album, When My Heart Finds Christmas, is among the most popular holiday collections of the past decade. After ten years of hearing requests for a sequel, the multi-talented singer/pianist/composer/arranger decided that the time was right.
“It wasn’t about the success of the last Christmas album as much as the opportunity to record some more of the great Christmas songs,” he explains. “After ten years, it was time to do it again.”
Harry for the Holidays began with a search for songs he liked.
“I wasn’t really looking for any specific balance,” he notes. “I just start with the melodies, and then look at the lyrics to make sure that they work for me.”
This time out, the process has yielded a generous program of 16 songs, ranging from the frolicking joy of “Frosty the Snowman” to the solemn grandeur of “Silent Night,” with four of Harry's own originals along the way.
Family input played a part in the creation of the album. “My kids didn’t influence me that much,” he laughs, “because if they had their way all of the serious songs would be saved for the next Christmas record and I’d just do `Frosty’ and `Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ over and over again. But `Frosty’ does bring back personal memories, because in my pre-cable youth it was always a big night when the `Frosty’ cartoon came on the TV. And `This Christmas’ is included because my wife Jill loves that song, and loves an earlier version that I had done [with Branford Marsalis, on the Columbia anthology A Jazzy Wonderland. I was reluctant to do it again, but you know how it goes, you must obey.”
Among Harry's own contributions to the program is a duet with George Jones on “Nothing New for New Year (for Me.)
“He’s an amazing talent,” Harry says of the legendary country singer. “I don’t know how someone can be that musical naturally. The sound of his voice is like something sent from God. George got the winning lottery ticket when it comes to a voice.”
Harry's other compositions touch on different seasonal emotions.
“`I Come with Love’ is a Catholic layman’s view of Christ’s life in three stages, paralleling the Holy Trinity. It was actually based on the second "Omen" movie, the scene where the boy realized that he was the Antichrist, and how he must have felt. The song is about what Christ felt when he found out that he was different. `I’m Gonna Be the First One (Up on Christmas Morning)’ is just from personal experience. I was always the first one up as a kid, but I still couldn’t open any presents until everyone else got up. I wanted to capture that `hurry up and wait’ thing that kids go through every Christmas. And `The Happy Elf’ is another kids’ song that came from thinking about how cool it would be to work in Santa’s shop.”
All of these songs – for that matter, all of Harry for the Holidays – are graced by Harry's arrangements for his stellar big band or orchestrations for a full complement of strings and winds.
“My last Christmas album was the first time I had ever written orchestral arrangements,” says Harry, “and I cried when I found out that I had figured it out. I’m still young as an arranger, and I’m trying to learn as I go. My writing is subconsciously influenced by the great arrangers I heard when I was focused on great singers and instrumentalists, like that shout chorus in `Blue Christmas,’ which I can see my Dad moving his body to.”
At the same time, Harry can maneuver the strings on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and raise images of Beethoven.
“Different songs call for different treatments,” he acknowledges. “The only version of `Blue Christmas’ I knew was Elvis’ version, and although there were numerous ways to interpret it, I thought it was best to leave it – except for that shout chorus. On `Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,’ in contrast, I wanted the music to reflect my version of Bethlehem, sort of globally Middle Eastern.”
Every one of Harry's notions is interpreted flawlessly by the accompanying musicians, with a special nod going to the members of his dynamic big band, who excel in both ensemble and solo passages.
“That sax section is like having four wide receivers on a football team who can all catch the ball,” Harry marvels, in a compliment that could equally apply to his talented brass and rhythm players.
Harry for the Holidays is the latest example of Harry's boundless energy and creativity, a burst of seasonal joy that should carry his world of fans well into the New Year.
Harry Connick Jr. - Piano & Vocals Ned Goold - Alto Sax James Greene - Alto Sax Jerry Weldon - Tenor Sax Mike Karn - Tenor Sax Dave Schumacher - Baritone Sax Roger Ingram - Trumpet Derrick Gardner - Trumpet Leroy Jones - Trumpet Joe Magnarelli - Trumpet Mark Mullins - Trombone Craig Klein - Trombone John Allred- Trombone Joe Barati - Bass Trombone Neal Caine - Bass Arthur Lattin II - Drums Lucien Barbarin - Percussion Nothing New For New Year: George Jones - Vocal Harry Connick, Jr - Vocal, Piano, Bass, and Drums Paul Franklin - Pedal Steel Biff Watson - Guitar
Arranged, Orchestrated and Conducted by Harry Connick, Jr. Produced by Tracey Freeman Recorded and mixed by Gregg Rubin Mastered by Vlado Meller Recorded at Capitol Studios, Los Angeles, CA May 13-22, 2003 Nothing New for New Year recorded at Ocean Way and Starstruck Studios in Nashville, TN Mixed and Mastered at Sony Studios, New York City