After the fireworks surrounding Harry Connick Jr.'s initial burst onto the jazz scene in 1988 subsided, he might have had to slug it out with other pianists and singers, from Marcus Roberts to Michael Feinstein. Such bouts would have been tough, the outcomes uncertain.
But along came Connick's appearance on the score of "When Harry Met Sally," and, well, you know the rest. Connick's third album, "When Harry Met Sally . . . Music from the Motion Picture," has sold more than 700,000 to date--more than doubling the combined sales of his first two LPs.
With that music Connick expanded his approach. He's still sticking with pop standards that marked his early work, but now he most often sings them with the backing of a 40-piece orchestra conducted by Marc Shaiman.
If it works, don't fix it, so Connick takes this successful tack a step further with "We Are in Love," one of the two albums he's simultaneously released. Here almost all the tunes--10 written by Connick and associates plus two standards--are rendered in orchestral settings laid out very nicely by Shaiman. While not Nelson Riddle, he's no slouch.
Against these lush backdrops, where muted trombones cushion a vocal and strings and brass vie with the leader for attention, Connick wields his dusky, part-Sinatra, part-Torme tenor, adding a touch of nasality that makes him sound as if he's from Brooklyn rather than New Orleans. The kid may not have Ol' Blues Eyes' magic pipes, but he can handle a tune, and with pretty good feeling, too.
The leader's originals, from the dapper title track to the somber "Buried in Blue," written for his mother at the time of her death, recall other standards, but they have a unique quality that keeps them apart from the crowd.
Now and then Connick drops some of his piano into the proceedings and goes from being Sinatra to being Thelonious Monk. Two tracks feature effective saxophone passages from Branford Marsalis, one of Connick's homies.
The other album, "Lofty's Roach Souffle" is strictly trio stuff, and it suffers from sameness. Connick's style--60% Monk, 20% Ellington and 20% Harry--is technically limited and only modestly expressive: It lacks the ribald excitement and unexpectedness of either Monk or Ellington. The tunes have some flavor, and Connick can capture a mood and hold it--that's a plus.
The video is a pleasing enough mishmash of music videos--"It Had to Be You" is fun, as is "Do You Know What it Means (to Miss New Orleans)," where Dr. John guests--along with performance footage from London and interview material.
One wonders, though, who will buy these wares. Connick, 22, is evoking a style that was popular in the '40s and '50s, yet many of the fans at his concerts are said to be young. Was the grand success of the music from "When Harry Met Sally" due to the popularity of the film, or is Connick a real live star on his own?
The answer should be clear by the end of the year, when sales figures for these albums will be in and the public has had a chance to assess Connick's cinematic talents--he makes his acting debut in "Memphis Belle," due for release in October. The way things look from here, Connick's star has only just begun to rise.