First of all, his detractors are wrong: Harry Connick Jr. doesn’t sound like Frank Sinatra. He wishes he sounded like Frank Sinatra. Of course, so do jillions of other singers who’ve tried interpreting the Tin Pan Alley repertoire since Sinatra mastered his craft, from Mel Torme to Bobby Darin. As a matter of fact, Connick really sounds like somebody trying to sound like Bobby Darin trying to sound like Frank Sinatra.
That seems harmless enough, if you accept all the multiple echoes in the rock world, like Springsteen doing Dylan doing Woody Guthrie. But rock critics deride Connick for exactly the same traits they tolerate or even celebrate in other artists: not only mimicry, but arrogance (what about Axl Rose?), pretention (Roger Waters?), and capitalizing on his good looks (Marky Mark?).
The bottom line, of course, is the music they make — and there’s never been a better window on Harry Connick’s real musical worth than the two albums he just released simultaneously: ”25” and Eleven. ”25” (named for his current age) is, as Connick says in his liner notes, ”about as raw as it gets” — for a highly skilled and extremely self-conscious pop classicist, that is. About half the selections are piano-and-vocal renditions of standards (”Stardust,” ”On the Street Where You Live”); the rest are instrumental solos (”Caravan,” ”Muskrat Ramble”) — with exceptions, notably a vocal duet with New Orleans howler Johnny Adams (”Lazybones”). Thoroughly conscientious and meticulous, ”25” is casually intimate, like pressed, starched pajamas.
In its own way, though, it’s as revealing as Victoria’s Secret undies. You can really hear every note of Connick’s singing, every syllable of his phrasing, even his breathing. And the revelation is, he’s pretty damn good at what he does, which happens to be pretty damn difficult. (Robert Palmer just humiliated himself at the same task.) Genuinely improved since the aimless warbling of his first efforts, Connick has developed a mature, throaty tone and a thoughtfully restrained way with a lyric. (His range is limited, however, and he has a habit of slurring words to cheat his way up to tough notes.) In point of fact, the Harry Connick of ”25” is actually better than some now-revered pop vocalists like Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney were at the same age.
Connick’s piano playing is more disciplined, less baroquely flamboyant here, too. He doesn’t sound quite as much like Thelonious Monk imitating Chico Marx. Perhaps by the time he makes ”30,” he’ll even learn how to swing. Meanwhile, Connick is advancing slowly — albeit too slowly for jazz purists — beyond the all-for-show style of his early work as a piano prodigy.
Unfortunately, it’s obvious that he hasn’t outgrown his whiz-kid ego, because he’s rereleasing Eleven, an album recorded when he was 11 and originally titled Pure Dixieland, which reminds us all what a gifted young fellow he was. Eleven is a vainglorious assemblage of old New Orleans tunes clumsily if earnestly performed in old-time-music style by a five-piece band, featuring the mini-Connick on honky-tonk piano and (on one cut) faux-Louis Armstrong vocals. Recommended for dances at VFW halls, where many attendees might be unburdened by good hearing. For those under age 80, stick with ”25.” ”25”: B+ Eleven: F