WHAT'S THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY?
Dazzling Pantene spokesmodel Kelly LeBrock once said, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."
Maybe LeBrock's plea was less breathtakingly presumptuous than it seems. Perhaps it was a simple assessment of a basic human attitude toward the naturally gifted, a little naive noblesse oblige from someone born to the runway.
Let's face it: It's easy to be jealous of those who have success, easy to write off accomplishments because they seem to have come so easily. And while he's no Kelly LeBrock, Harry Connick Jr. has taken his share of flak: sellout, pretty boy, Sinatra rip-off, abuser of his own talent. He's been called all of this by the lofty age of 26. And what's earned him such negativity? Here's a brief rsum of the musician's achievements so far: Connick, son of the New Orleans district attorney, began playing piano before he could spell it. By age 18, he had released his self-titled debut album, an adept, sparkling offering of songs by Gershwin, Thelonious Monk and Ron Carter, along with some of his own idiosyncratic compositions.
He was much-talked-about in jazz circles and began drawing crowds in prestigious venues not only because of his playing, but because of his warm, natural--and, at times, hilarious--stage presence. The year 1988 marked his recorded singing debut on the trio-based album of standards, 20. More raves.
Connick scored the film When Harry Met Sally . . . and garnered his first platinum album. The year 1990 brought two simultaneously released CDs, Lofty's Roach Souffl and We Are in Love, both featuring the wunderkind's songwriting; the latter became platinum number two.
He toured the world with a big band, singing and swinging la Ol' Blue Eyes, and made a critically acclaimed acting debut in the film Memphis Belle. Then this guy with matinee-idol looks and the charm of Louis Armstrong landed other roles in the film Little Man Tate and the TV show Cheers. He played Prince Philip's 70th birthday bash at Windsor Castle, wrote and orchestrated an album of big-band music, picked up three Grammys, even did a Christmas album last year. It went platinum.
Oh, and somewhere in there, Connick found time to marry Victoria's Secret catalogue model Jill Goodacre.
Yet not everybody was in love with the guy. Some critics claimed he had turned into Sinatra Lite for the MTV generation, and fellow musicians declared that he'd forsaken his estimable jazz skills for limp, crowd-pleasing pap. Instead of remaining pure to the Music, all Connick wanted to do was make people happy.
Which is sort of funny, because all Connick wants to do is make people happy.
"As far as people being jealous, hey, man, listen: When I see someone capturing a huge audience, doing something I think is less than what I can do, I get a bit jealous, too," says Connick--without anything even close to rancor--by phone from his home in New York City. "That makes me work harder, and try to get a bigger audience.
"I'll tell you something. A lot of jazz musicians say, 'Oh, man, it's just about the music.' But anybody can get a job, work during the day and come home at night and play for free. They can be as introspective and brooding as they wanna be. But you go onstage for a reason--you love to be onstage."
And that's where Connick will be when he visits Phoenix this week, up there with his new band Funky Dunky, playing the self-penned tunes (with lyrics by Ramsey McLean) from his latest album, She. The release is a definite departure from his straight-jazz and big-band crooner fodder, with heavy shades of Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, even passages that could pass for quirky, lyrical Elvis Costello--all washed over with a New Orleans feel.
A contrived attempt at genre jumping? A chance to snare even more followers into the fold? Not according to Harry. "I've heard everything from Brothers Johnson to George Clinton to everybody," he says. "I wasn't particularly thinkin' about any of those people, but I'll take it as a compliment. It's something I have to acknowledge because it's a different music from what I'm known for. It'd be great if I got a new audience, but it's stuff that I've played all my life. I love it and I'm happy playin' it.
"It's just the first time I've let the people who buy my records know it."
Though it's doubtful any of his fans will be charging back to record stores with copies of She, brandishing exchange slips in search of Ornette Coleman albums, Connick makes it clear where his musical heart lies.
"I'm a jazz musician, definitely," he says, definitely. "I've spent most of my time working on jazz because that's the hardest to play. I mean, 'pop' is the abbreviation for popular, and I've sold enough records to be considered popular to some degree, but I'm a jazz musician."
So if his New Sound of Now isn't just some marketing ploy, where did this jazz-head get his pop smarts? Turns out, when our then-teenage hero wasn't jamming with aging pros in the French Quarter, he listened to what was on the radio, just like the rest of us. "Journey, Kansas, Zeppelin, Queen, Parliament. I love that stuff. I love disco music. That's what I danced to at my sixth-grade dances," he reveals. "When you hear this record, you'll hear major rock influence, major disco influence, cause I love that stuff. It's a part of my life. "The way I look at it, when I'm on my deathbed, I want to be able to say I did everything I wanted to do. And this is definitely some stuff I wanted to do."
Connick can sway with languid dexterity from New Orleans jazz piano prodigy to easy pop/rock troubadour, but there's no denying his major influence: an artist he's had a couple of reverential, backstage audiences with, playing Butterfly to Master. The man who most embodies his musician/spotlight god/entertainer ethos. One of the few artists Connick will admit to being jealous of.
Mr. Frank Sinatra.
"Let's put it this way: People seem to forget that he's the greatest singer in the world," says Connick. "I could go on and on. I'm one of the only people you'll talk to who actually does that for a living--sing with a big band every night--and I know how hard that is to do.
"And for somebody like him to hear somebody like me, man, I wouldn't even turn my head if I were him. Just for him to be professionally nice to me and say, 'I know what you're doing, keep going, keep it up,' that's very kind. Cause he'll sing me into the ground, and everyone else."
Which leads us back to the sacred, keep-the-paying-customers-happy law of the saloon singer.
"What I'm starting to realize as I grow a little bit older is that people don't care about all that musical stuff--harmony and rhythm and theme. What they care about is, 'When I pay my X amount of dollars, am I going to enjoy the show?'" Connick says. "There are so many artists out there singing about political problems and this and that, it's like, hey--let's have a good time. People come to forget about that stuff. That's really why we're all doing this, to get applauded by fans.
"I don't want to have 20 people at the Maple Leaf bar in New Orleans listening to me when I'm 60 years old, I don't want that. I want to have 100,000 people singing along to my songs.
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