Harry Connick Jr. reunites with his big band on his new album, "Come by Me," but don't expect a lot of jump, jive and wailin'. The New Orleans pianist, crooner and actor, who performs with the ensemble at Wolf Trap tonight, isn't much interested in the flashier aspects of the retro swing movement. Instead, he prefers a mix of string-laden balladry, rhythmically tricky piano grooves and Sinatraesque, finger-popping swing.
More often than not, in fact, the music on "Come by Me" (Columbia) seems refreshingly out of sync with blaring neo-swing trends. That's because Connick seems more concerned with evoking a distinctive pop atmosphere than merely reveling in the past or cashing in on a fad. Why else would he choose to quietly reprise "Danny Boy" as if he were an Irish-born tenor? Or better yet, why would he take almost all of the air out of "There No Business Like Show Business," so that the familiar melody lopes along until it finally comes to an abrupt halt? And consider the long, meandering introduction to "Time After Time"--clearly Connick wasn't looking for a lot of radio play when he sketched out that arrangement. While none of these tunes ranks among the album's best performances, it's clear from listening to them that Connick was content to follow his own muse in the recording studio.
Not surprisingly, some of Connick's finest moments come when he's on his home turf. Two of the album's original tunes--the simple yet rhythmically engaging title track and a colorful organ-laced instrumental titled "Next Door Blues"--are firmly rooted in Southern R&B traditions and reveal Connick's ties to Professor Longhair and other Crescent City pianists. The dirgelike rendering of "Cry Me a River" is less effective, but like all of the album's big band arrangements, including an expansive take of "Love for Sale," it benefits from an impressive roster of jazz talent that features trumpeter Leroy Jones, trombonist Lucien Barbarin and tenor saxophonist Ned Goold.
The remaining tracks on the album find Connick juxtaposing his own romantic ballads with such pop standards as "Charade," "Change Partners" and "Easy to Love." The original tunes are smart and tastefully orchestrated, but they lack the melodic charm inherent in the vintage pop tunes that Connick interprets with care, if not always with grace or the requisite emotion. He's no Sinatra, of course, but his respect for that singer's legacy makes "Come by Me" all the more inviting.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)
CAPTION: Harry Connick Jr.'s new album is engaging, if uninspired.