Sunday, August 10, 2003

Connick can't hide his love for the mike

By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Harry Connick Jr. had honorable intentions, but there was no way the crowd would allow him to leave the stage without singing a song or two.

"I'm glad you get to hear us do what we don't get to normally play - straight-up instrumental jazz," Connick told the audience at the start of his 8 p.m. set at the 20th Century Theatre Thursday.

That's how this appearance was billed, as a no-crooning night. Connick would be returning to his first love, playing piano jazz.

But only half of the evening went that way. In that time, Connick, the crossover-jazz sensation, played the role of anti-star and led his quartet through original compositions of by-the-numbers bop, blues and ballads.

The rest of the show was what the crowd really wanted - Connick the singer and Connick the raconteur.

It was a big night for the Oakley venue. Connick usually plays the big downtown theaters, but he's booked in smaller rooms for an August tour promoting his new album, Other Hours: Connick on Piano Vol. 1. He did two shows Thursday, at 8 and 10:30 p.m., and each sold out at 500.

The 80-minute early show featured four songs from Other Hours. The album is a collection of Connick originals written for the musical Thou Shalt Not.

Judging by what he played, Connick is a serviceable composer, capable of coming up with generic-sounding stuff in a classic style, embellished with his native New Orleans touches like mambo bass lines and right-hand flourishes.

But there wasn't one Other Hours tune or melody that anyone went home humming to himself. Overall, the audience seemed unmoved by the instrumentals. And Connick and his band - bassist Neal Caine, saxophonist Ned Goold and drummer Arthur Latin - didn't necessarily put forth the vibe that they were thrilled by what they were playing, either.

Only the climactic moments of the angular, cool "What a Waste" and of the bopping "Sovereign Lover" brought about any sort of band-audience heat exchange.

In the eyes of the crowd, Connick did better with a microphone than with a piano.

During the best stretch of the show, Connick went from the role of Professor Longhair to those of Dean Martin and finally Frank Sinatra.

He delivered "Light the Way," an up-tempo sampling of Mardi Gras mysticism, and then launched into a funny synopsis of Thou Shalt Not in which he interrupted himself to send his road manager off to get drinks for the band.

After the cocktails arrived, he abandoned the piano bench for the front of the stage and crooned "My Little World" with a melodramatic Sinatra flair.


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