ONCE UPON a time, before he contributed several cuts to the "When Harry Met Sally" soundtrack, Harry Connick Jr. was better known as as a pianist than as a singer. But no more. Earlier this year he picked up a Grammy for "Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance," and now, with next week's simultaneous release of two albums -- one an orchestral vocal album, the other a jazz trio offering -- he seems intent on balancing both careers without having to shift from one style to the other on the same record.
"We Are in Love," the vocal album, picks up where "Harry and Sally" left off, except this time instead of singing tunes by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart and Duke Ellington, the 22-year-old Connick focuses primarily on material composed by himself and lyricist Ramsey McLean -- mostly a mixture of brooding ballads and effervescent swing.
The punchy brass and strings arrangement that underscores the opening cut (and title track) immediately brings to mind Sinatra's influence on Connick's delivery, right down to the singer's playfully hip sign-off. There are plenty of other reminders of Sinatra too, just as there are reminders of Bobby Darin and other pop vocalists with a certain vocal swagger, but the best performances don't display Connick's fascination with any one singer so readily.
The languid, string-swept "Buried in Blue," the rhythmically loping romantic proposition "I've Got a Great Idea" and the sunny, carefree "Recipe for Love" define the album's emotional range with taste, class and not a little distinction. And lest anyone overlook Connick's ties to New Orleans, saxophonist Branford Marsalis manages to drop in for an enjoyable cameo.
Far more consistent, however, is the trio session "Lofty's Roach Souffle," the first instrumental album to document Connick's considerable gifts as a composer. Like those on his debut album, the arrangements of "Hudson Bommer," "Mr. Spill," "Harronymous" and other pieces are often marked by jarring notes and unexpected rhythmic and harmonic twists -- devices that often give the tunes a Thelonious Monk-like tartness and angularity without sounding overly derivative.
Along with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Shannon Powell, Connick also mines the Crescent City's deep and rich piano traditions on "Bayou Maharajah," and waxes both sad ("Lonely Side") and sunny ("One Last Pitch") with equal ease.