HARRY CONNICK JR. has placed Hollywood on hold. Trouble is, FedEx doesn't know it.
Although the film scripts keep coming, peppering the mail with tempting roles and offers, the Grammy-winning singer and pianist has blocked out the next six months for a tour of the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia.
"I pretty much shut down my movie career because I'm touring and you can't do both," say Connick, on the phone from his home in Connecticut. "Plus, if I'm reading scripts and I can't do them, that's pretty frustrating."
Besides, the 32-year-old New Orleans native adds, he prefers musicmaking to moviemaking, especially when he's on the road with his big band -- the impressive ensemble that's accompanying him during an extended engagement at the Warner Theatre this week.
Having acquired star status as an actor in such films as "Copycat" and "Hope Floats," Connick says he was eager to get back to performing with lots of brass and reeds. At Wolf Trap this summer, he devoted much of his performance to tunes he had recently arranged for his big band, as well as tunes from his new album, "Come By Me." The pop standards included a lot of Cole Porter tunes, freshly treated.
"His tunes are great because they've been documented in their definitive form," says Connick, explaining his fascination with the composer's work. "A lot of them are from shows, so I can try new things with them. It gives me carte blanche as a composer. I'll flip through his book and say, `Well, I'll arrange this one for tonight's show and that one for tomorrow.' Before I know it, I've got 10 Cole Porter tunes in the book."
Tunes by Porter, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Lerner and Lowe -- these are some of Connick's favorite things. Is he aware of a contemporary songwriter whose work compares with their legacy?
"No," he says flatly. "Nobody even comes close. Back then, everyone was writing melodies. Now, nobody's writing melodies. I think everything shifted to groove -- that happened a long time ago. Even lyrics are more important than melodies now. People say, `What about Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim?' Well, they're writing melodies but it's a completely different sound. In fact, if you actually sat down to write a tune like Porter and those guys, it's impossible. It's like they took all the great melodies. They didn't leave anything for the rest of us. It was true genius what they did."
Still, there is the occasional revelation. While working on what he calls a "really atypical children's album" featuring some tunes from "Willy Wonka," Connick recently discovered the music of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. "Those songs are awesome," he volunteers. "Great pieces of music with really clever melodies."
These days Connick doesn't write much unless he's working on an album. Instead, he's devoting most of his time to arranging music, turning out several tunes a week with the help of a computer program he's adapted for big band performance. During the ensemble's summer show at Wolf Trap, music stands were conspicuously absent onstage, replaced by a softly glowing bank of computer monitors. Now when Connick calls out a tune, his bandmates merely double click on their computer screen to see the entire chart.
"It was kind of weird at first for these guys," Connick says of his handpicked bandmates. "A lot of them didn't even have computers. Now they're completely addicted to them, and they make things so much easier. You can have an infinite number of tunes on a Zip disc and even practice on your little laptop."
More important, says Connick, the new technology has really opened his ears. "What's exciting is that I've kind of fallen into a routine. After the show, after meeting some fans, I'll get on the bus where I have this little computer setup, and I'll begin arranging a tune. Then I'll get up in the morning and work on it all day, and by 4 o'clock, when the band comes in, I've got a new tune to play. You can't believe what a timesaving device the computer application is. If I was arranging by hand, just to do a tune a day, we'd probably have to have five copyists on the road with us."
Now if Connick wants to transpose something or switch eight bars from the beginning to the middle, the task is accomplished with just a few clicks. "My growth as an artist is faster than it ever was," he gauges. "The computer forces you to deal with things you haven't dealt with before."
The ultimate goal, he adds, is simple. "I was in Lionel Hampton's band when I was 19 and he had about 600 tunes in the book. I want a book like that so I can pick out any tune and do it that night. I don't want to keep doing the same thing for my audience -- I want to give them the best stuff I have to offer. And I sure don't want my band to hear me doing the same stuff night after night."
HARRY CONNICK JR. -- Appearing Wednesday through Jan. 29 at Warner Theatre.
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