American Classics On The Piano

Posted: November 28, 1989

After a tender, Chet Baker-influenced reading of "Where or When" in which his ruminative vocals were supported by appropriately shaded piano chords, Harry Connick Jr. told Sunday's near-capacity crowd at the Academy of Music that he didn't fully consider the song's lyric until his 38th attempt to record it for the When Harry Met Sally . . . soundtrack.

This may have seemed an endearing confession to the majority of the crowd, which was wild about 22-year-old Harry - his Armani suit, his suave patter, his Sinatra affectations, his piano theatrics, his boyish New Orleans charm.

But for skeptics, it was confirmation that Connick's stylish investigation of American popular song - the Gershwin, Porter and Ellington classics that were the evening's meat and potatoes - was not complete.

Connick has been on a whirlwind course. In the months since When Harry Met Sally . . . appeared in theaters, the polite jazz pianist who debuted two years ago has accomplished the career shift to singing star that took Nat Cole years. Though his youthful exuberance has taken him far (and, indeed, served him well on Sunday), it could not hide moments of thoughtless phrasing.

Connick breezed through "Our Love Is Here to Stay" with more cutes than commitment. He led bassist Ben Wolff and drummer Shannon Powell through ''Stompin' at the Savoy" to a frantic conclusion. Later, with a 31-piece orchestra behind him, he offered detached, woodenly phrased renditions of "It Had to Be You" and "I Could Write a Book" as their ill-fitting, overwritten arrangements clanked in the background.

Working from stage center and the piano, Connick presided over a show that was musically rich, funny in the manner of a TV variety show and, despite his frequent pronouncements, decidedly unswinging.

He began the evening with a solo piano version of "Winter Wonderland" that was the evening's high point. Careful to respect New Orleans elders such as jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis and rhythm-and-blues pianists James Booker and Professor Longhair, Connick connected his disparate influences with jaunty accompaniment and solo lines that were bold and unafraid to be clunky. He stretched the form of the song to fit his improvisations and at one point treated the upper registers of the piano as a calliope, but for all the adventurousness, he never interrupted the churning rhythm.

Such rhythmic sensitivity became less evident as the show went on. Stepping into band-singer turf, Connick grew more cautious. He professed love for Frank Sinatra, then was haunted by him on the bright "It's All Right With Me." He and arranger Mark Shaman mentioned studio orchestra arrangers such as Nelson Riddle and Billy May with reverence, then engaged in a kind of deconstruction of that art - through arrangements that abandoned all notion of restraint. The shame is, every time he concentrated on music rather than showmanship, Connick proved that he knows better.

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