Harry Connick Jr. has always been ready with surprises. So why get tripped up that he's doing it again with a rule-breaking, worldly-wise set called "Every Man Should Know" that confounds expectations in the best possible way?
We first encountered the now 45-year-old entertainer when he was barely out of his teens as a facile, frisky New Orleans-born-and-stylized jazz pianist. It's a genre Mr. Connick revisits regularly.
But the world soon learned that he also liked to sing and write "old school" pop songs in a crooning style oft compared to a young Frank Sinatra. Harry's lanky frame and good looks didn't hurt.
Then, lo and behold, he turned out to be a surprisingly effective actor on screen and stage. He even wrote his own Broadway musical (2001's "Thou Shalt Not"), to critical and commercial success.
Now the man has surprised us again with the most personal and "plain speak" album project he's ever taken on. Ironically, it's also the Connick set with the broadest-ever commercial appeal, though the artist claims that was hardly his intent.
Largely recorded in Nashville and laced with fiddle and mandolin, peppery guitar and down-home Connick piano work, plus gospel singers lifting amazing chorus hooks to the heavens, the songs have a feel-good, genre-gapping "countrypolitan" spirit.
Tunes like "Greatest Love Story" and "Friend (Going Home)" are immediately appealing and pretty darned inspiring. They would do a Billy Joel or Ray Charles proud.
But in a chat this week prompted by the album's release and Mr. Connick's just-launched tour, coming to Heinz Hall tonight, the man laughed at the suggestion that he's aiming to fill a "hole" in the music marketplace left by Billy Joel, Ray Charles or even Norah Jones' now-and-again retreat from the world of countrypolitan.
"I've never even heard that term before today," Mr. Connick shared, with a laugh. "And it sounds kind of like a negative, until you connected 'countrypolitan' to Ray Charles. Hey, I'll take that as a compliment. He's the greatest talent that ever lived."
Mr. Connick added quickly that he's "never tried to psych out the market, fill a need or write for a purpose -- and I've got the record sales, or lack of same, to prove it. Truth is, I've never had a hit single."
Although he's sold 25 million albums.
"And the only time I ever took direction from my label is when Donnie Ienner [a longtime Sony Music executive] asked me to record 'Only You,' a set of songs from his generation."
Country has always been part of the ultra-diverse New Orleans music world that Mr. Connick grew up in, "where you're switching off, playing with different kinds of bands all the time. Funk one night. Jazz the next. Classical the night after that." (And, yes, this onetime Juilliard/Tanglewood student has ambitions to explore classical composing "someday," too.)
"These songs didn't even start out with a specific stylistic intent. I write the lyrics first, then the music, then figure out how it should be arranged."
But it did come out in our chat that he had been hanging with some notable country dudes just before taking on this project.
He'd been filming a "sweet little indie film in Austin called 'When Angels Sing,' coming out this Christmas, that has Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in small, nonmusical, acting roles."
And he'd gone through some personal "breakthroughs," he admitted, that allowed him to write songs this time with "some autobiographical details that I've never shared in a song before, that were too personal, too painful. These are things in my life I work on and try and improve on. And, for lack of a better word, eventually got desensitized about, enough to be able to sing and play through."
"Greatest Love Story" references his late mother, for example, suggesting that she would have loved Harry's wife, Jill, though they never met. This listener could easily imagine the song becoming a popular wedding-day theme or being used effectively in a film.
"I don't think about such things," demurred the composer/singer.
And that wasn't the only contemplation of mortality that has a country accent, though there are also tunes with a blues flair, breezy bossa nova groove or New Orleans jump, with help from Wynton and Branford Marsalis.
Mr. Connick so threw himself into the notion of romantic loss in the you-walked-out lament "Come See About Me" that he was "weeping in the studio, literally, the first two or three times I recorded it."
"Then I went to the other extreme, tried to distance myself as an actor might. Those performances came off too cold. I finally managed to reach a middle ground, still honest, but not breaking down."
Likewise keeping it real: Please note the "no pitch correction" disclaimer on the back of the album.
"It's printed in the same typeface that I saw as a kid on the back of the Queen album 'Night at the Opera,' " related Mr. Connick, "though that said 'no synthesizers.' As the guy who wrote the songs, did the arrangements, conducted the strings and coproduced the album, I'm then pretty tough on myself as a vocalist.
"If I sing out of tune, I make me do it again. I won't pitch-correct. That's the lazy way out. And with artificial correction, you lose the honest emotion of the voice."
So, how many of these new songs will he be laying on his concert audience this tour?
"I'm bringing 15 musicians along. We've got a lot of flexibility. I've also got another new [limited distribution] album of all New Orleans-flavored music, 'Smokey Mary,' that I was talked out of packing with 'Every Man Should Know' as a double CD. It's crazy. I wish we had six hours to play. We'll be changing things every night."