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September 1999

Harry Connick, Jr.
Come By Me
Columbia Jazz

The jazz world can be a cruel and fickle mistress when it comes to artists who pass through it, move on, and come knocking again. A dozen years ago, Harry Connick, Jr. came bounding into the realm of jazz, a promising young pianist out of New Orleans. Along the way, he became a matinee idol and seemed to be seduced by other, more glamorous and lucrative niches of culture: he was in the movies, married a lingerie model, put out an under-ripe album recorded when he was 11, and shrewdly played up his chip-off-the-Sinatra-block persona. The further he ventured into status as a general public celebrity, the further away from jazz' embrace he got.

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Johanna Goodman

Harry Connick, Jr.

But times have changed, and old scores are settling. Either his recent recordings are more mature, or we're letting our defenses down and getting tired of dismissing him on principle. Whatever the case, having landed and ripened in his third decade, Connick, Jr. is easier to accept for his inherent musical virtues. Those qualities-as a pianist of simple, melodic and funk-ish gifts, an unpretentious, suave-toned vocalist, and a composer-arranger with a taste for big band and orchestral tailoring-come together handily on his new one. Is it high art? Not exactly. Is it good clean fun, lined with easy-going musicality, sprinklings of camp, and agreeably swank production? You bet.

The underlying message has to do with paying respects to his own roots, in terms of the New Orleans traditions, mainstream/big band orthodoxy, and the juncture where jazz and smooth pop vocal meet (i.e., Sinatraville). As if laying out the ground rules up front, his original tunes opening the album are handsomely crafted, tradition-hugging pieces that could have been written forty years ago: "Nowhere With Love," nicely coated with horns 'n' strings, may as well be a tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes and Sammy Cahn, while the title tune chugs with New Orleans-ian vim. He may be expressing an acolyte's humility in his odd arrangement of "Time After Time," almost entirely instrumental until the end, as if to admit that he dares not compete with Sinatra's definitive rendition of the tune.

The push-pull of tradition and reinvention keeps reappearing, like an attitudinal motif on the project. The rhythmic setting of "Easy to Love" switches, a bit deviously, from quirky to swaggering swing. A lush gush of strings sneaks up beneath his plainspeak vocal treatment of "Danny Boy," and it's an affectingly emotional twist on a potentially sappy standard. "Cry Me a River" is equipped with a sluggish Crescent City funeral march, while Mancini's sleek classic "Charade" is fitted with a smart, punchy big band chart.

In another corner, "There's No Business Like Show Business" is reconstructed, turned from a frenetic showboater to a sly, slinky-pulsed number, in a fully equipped arrangement. Connick, Jr. knows about show business more than most jazz musicians, and the showman is finding his way back to the jazz neighborhood that once obsessed him, with wits mostly intact and warm spirit flowing.

Originally published in September 1999
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