The King of Swing

by Mike Ross
Edmonton Sun, July 6, 1999

We're Just Wild About Harry - how many times has that been used?

As often as necessary. In other words, every time Harry Connick Jr. comes to town. He brings His Big Band (no one else's!) to a sold-out Jubilee Auditorium tomorrow night, supporting his new big band CD, Come By Me.

You may think the swing scene needs a guy who, as Austin Powers might say, makes women horny. He does. Responses among females at The Sun range from "I want to bear his children" to something we can't print. In many ways, this 31-year-old musician, actor, husband and father is still seen as the new and improved Frank Sinatra. But don't get him wrong. Connick's music isn't about hooking onto some passing fad. In this case, it's swing, and he's been conspicuously silent over the last year when swing was big, baby.

He has loftier goals. In the tradition of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Henry Mancini or George Gershwin - Harry's heroes - he's tirelessly set his sights on a bygone genre of music called "American popular song." It's a dying art, Connick says.

"It's only been in the last 30 years where you could be a musician and not have to play an instrument and know what key you're singing in," he says, on the phone from a tour stop in Toronto.

Many pop songs today, he adds, are lacking in two key elements: "Melody and harmony.

"When people write songs today - and I'm not saying all songs - but a lot of the songs you hear on the radio are not constructed with that stuff in mind. The skills that it takes to do that are pretty much gone. But that's all I think about: trying to write a good song. I don't know if I have yet, but that's all I try to do."

You won't find many artists who can do it all like Harry can. Aside from the standards, he writes the songs, he arranges them, he writes the charts, he sings, he plays the piano, he even conducts the orchestra.

These are the "basics," he says.

"We all have the access to the training. It's just a question of whether we want to employ it or not. I would be cracked over the head if I didn't learn my scales and stuff like that. But that's being a musician. That's all I know. And all the musicians I hang out with are like that. They're all musicians. They know all that stuff."

Of course, not everybody has access to the Manhattan School of Music and its five-figure tuition. That's where Connick received the bulk of his formal training, although he'd been playing professionally since he was nine years old. After college, Connick was signed to the Columbia Jazz label, which released his self-titled debut in 1987.

World fame came two years later with the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack album. Hollywood casting agents started to take notice of this soft-spoken, Frank Sinatra-like kid from New Orleans. On the strength of his looks and a thankfully competent acting ability, Connick has appeared in numerous feature films, including Hope Floats, Copycat and the upcoming Wayward Son, in which he plays a convicted rapist. It's his first starring role.

Although it seems like he's doing it all at once in a superhuman burst of creative energy, Connick claims it's easy to balance two careers and a family.

"There's no demands to being a movie star," he laughs. "It's not like Hollywood is breaking my door down. There's plenty of guys they would hire before me to play the roles I would like to play, in most cases. I read scripts and if I find one that I like, the chances of my actually getting to do it are very slight. And out of that small percentage, if I do happen to get it, I take a couple of months off and do it.

"It seems like I'm incredibly busy, but it's really a big facade."

At 31 - with a dozen albums, as many feature films, a wife and two kids - it makes you wonder what Connick's idea of "busy" really is.

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