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THE TROUBLE WITH HARRYWILL CONNICK'S COMMERCIAL CROONING DROWN OUT HIS PIANO PROMISE?

On the surface, Harry Connick Jr. would have to rank as one of the entertainment industry's foremost opportunists. With his soundtrack album to the film When Harry Met Sally . . . , the 22-year-old star has already accomplished a nearly impossible feat--turning a jazz record platinum. This fall, Connick's face follows his music onto the screen in his acting debut, The Memphis Belle. And to pass the time until then, the singer-pianist recently released not one, but two albums. Simultaneously.

This eyebrow-raising feat of prolific musicianship seems at first like jazz's version of New Kids on the Block-style marketing, a bid to take advantage of Connick's career momentum. But the way Connick tells it in a recent telephone interview, he put out the new LPs We Are in Love and Lofty's Roach Souffle at the same time because he wanted to showcase his different skills.

"I'm a singer and I'm also a piano player, and the way I sing and play are two completely different styles," he says of the vocally oriented Love and the piano-driven Souffle. "So, I wanted to go back and document both of those different styles."

Connick has never been shy about professing his belief in keeping musical categories distinct. He takes a brash stance in a world where his beloved jazz melds with rock, pop and world-beat influences, creating a synthesis more the norm than the exception.

"I think fusion is a simplification of the music," he says. "It's a lot harder to play straight-ahead swing than it is to play fusion. And acoustic instruments sound better to me than the electric ones everybody goes for."

Throughout most of his career, Connick has decided to take a musical approach common to the most recent crop of New Orleans-bred jazz musicians. Their angle has less to do with a specific style than it does with a conservative philosophy of purity and duality: Delve into one musical interest, then another, rather than combine them. Connick's neighbor Wynton Marsalis, consequently, maintains separate careers in jazz and classical music. His brother Branford Marsalis refuses to label his work with Sting anything other than pop, saving the label of jazz for the outings under his own name. Connick, who, incidentally, studied piano under the famous siblings' father Ellis Marsalis, maintains dual interests in big-band vocals and jazz piano.

Connick's self-titled 1987 Columbia Records debut was strictly a jazz piano effort, reminiscent of work by Erroll Garner and Earl Hines. Next year's successor, 20, was his only release to combine vocals and serious keyboard performances. Starting with his third album, 1989's vocal-oriented When Harry Met Sally . . . soundtrack, Connick has decided to separate his jazz piano playing from his more limited vocal style.

We Are in Love, the more elaborate of his two new efforts, is comprised primarily of Connick singing original compositions in traditional orchestral and big-band settings. The intended market is unquestionably the audience who snatched up the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally . . . , a similarly produced collection of standards. Not surprisingly, most of the tunes Connick has written for We Are in Love sound as though he intended to compose in the vein of the great American songwriters represented on his previous big seller. He's tapping into a segment of the music-buying public hungry for big-band interpretations of classic American popular songwriting.

Connick isn't the first to cater to this crowd, only the most creative. Linda Ronstadt, Pia Zadora, and Carly Simon have all recorded album-length tributes to popular music more fashionable in their mothers' youth than their own. But until this release by Connick, none has attempted to add to the tradition by writing in the ageless compositional style of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

That's not to say Connick deserves to be hailed as big-band's savior. For one thing, his often attractive writing is smothered beneath garish production. Much of We Are in Love merely sounds like Forties music played by bands of that era. Connick's emphasis on purity of form has resulted in an album that sounds more nostalgic than original--a criticism also leveled at Wynton Marsalis' hard bop regurgitations. On occasion, Connick sings like a Frank Sinatra copy backed by the famous crooner's Gordon Jenkins arrangements. "Just a Boy" is uncannily like nearly any cut off Sinatra's landmark September of My Years album of thirty years ago. But some of the ballads, "Drifting" for example, work well by rehashing the past less than the up-tempo cuts that feature a corny, Tonight Show-band approach to swing.

Several moments stand above the rest: a stripped-down version of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" with a gutsy Branford Marsalis solo, and a bit of Connick's dissonant piano at the end of "Forever for Now." It's promising stuff, suggesting that with the barrage of horns and strings removed, less might prove to be more.

And Connick makes good on that theory throughout Lofty's Roach Souffle. The instrumental effort--pianist Connick along with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Shannon Powell--features an interplay of musicians that offers more substance than the big-band album. Where Connick's voice subjects his band to the background on We Are in Love, his piano converses freely with the rhythm section on Souffle.

Still, the strongest personality in the trio isn't Connick or either of his sidemen. With the exception of the two final cuts, the star is the ghost of Thelonious Monk. His quirky phrasing, intentional use of odd intervals, and lag-timing pervade nearly every piano line.

Connick allows that Monk influenced him, but maintains that he wasn't necessarily re-creating the pianist's style on Souffle. "I was probably seventeen when I first heard Monk," Connick recalls. "Listening to him showed me the importance of theme, harmony, rhythm and swing. A lot of people misinterpret this album and say it was a Monk thing. Duke Ellington was a bigger influence on this record than Monk was. That's who Monk got his stuff off. Some people have gone so far as to say I quoted Monk passages. I'd like to have them show me where they find that happening."

It's surprising to hear Connick play down the Monk factor, which is as evident in the album's writing style as in the playing. "Lonely Side" sounds like a Connick remake of Monk's "'Round Midnight," and "Mr. Spill" copies the famous stylist's "Little Rootie Tootie."

Sure, the pianist doesn't display a style of his own on Souffle, but the album still probably offers more of an insight into his future than do his more popular records. When Harry Met Sally . . . and We Are in Love are primarily sentimental, offering the romantic dreams and soothing arrangements of a happier, safer era.

The Harry Connick Jr. of Lofty's Roach Souffle, meanwhile, waits in the wings with the promise of musical potential. Connick's conveyance of the great jazz pianists' styles, on both this release and his previous albums, shows him to be a learned and intelligent musician. It's the perfect foundation for Connick to develop a unique approach while embodying the history of his piano heroes.

While Connick makes the rounds of show business, he might consider the life of another New Orleans figure, Louis Armstrong. Though he juggled a trio of careers as an actor, musical entertainer and jazz musician, Armstrong will be remembered by most for "Hello, Dolly!" and "What a Wonderful World." His 1920s Hot Five recordings, which assure him immortality as the first true jazz innovator, remain relatively obscure. Harry Connick Jr. is already talented enough to draw interest in the same three areas as Armstrong. And if the crooner crowd or movie industry keeps him from spending plenty of hours at the keyboard, Connick's financial gain will be jazz's loss.

Harry Connick Jr. will perform at the Celebrity Theatre on Wednesday, July 18. Show time is 8 p.m.

"I think fusion is a simplification of the music. It's a lot harder to play straight-ahead swing than it is to play fusion."

The strongest personality in the trio isn't Connick. The star is the ghost of Thelonious Monk. His phrasing and timing pervade nearly every piano line.


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