Harry Connick Jr.

Harry Connick Jr. (June 24, 2004)

Harry Connick Jr. has been crooning love songs since the beginning of his full and fruitful career. But at this point in his life, interpreting romantic lyrics requires little effort. He feels them more.

"The music is a lot more fun to interpret when you have something to base it on," says the actor-singer, 36, who's calling from a tour stop in Atlanta. "I'm so thankful for what I have in my personal life. When I sing a song like 'Only You' or 'I Only Have Eyes For You,' it's not difficult because I have someone I feel that way about."

He's referring to his wife of 10 years, former Victoria's Secret model Jill Goodacre. On his latest album, the gold-selling Only You, Connick mines the pop songbooks of the '50s and '60s and unearths such timeless romantic gems as the aforementioned tunes, "Goodnight My Love (Pleasant Dreams)" and "For Once in My Life." Connick, who plays Merriweather Post Pavilion Sunday evening to close the Columbia Festival of the Arts, invigorates the songs with an undeniable warmth and freshness, his Sinatra-tinged vocals flowing behind the beat.

"I arranged the songs and orchestrated them all," he says. "I looked at the songs at their most basic forms and tried to put my own spin on it. I changed rhythms and harmonies around. A lot of it was fun to do."

The ease, the openness is evident throughout the 12 cuts on Only You. There's a lushness to the arrangements, but they never feel too precious. And, rightfully, the spotlight is on Connick's focused vocals and well-placed piano. "Other Hours" is perhaps the finest performance the artist has committed to tape so far. (Full disclosure: I repeat the track at least three or four times when I put the CD on.)

On previous efforts - including his commercial breakthrough, the soundtrack to 1989's When Harry Met Sally - Connick centered on standards from the '30s and '40s. He even ventured into jazz-funk fusion on 1994's She. Concentrating on chestnuts from the '50s and '60s was suggested by the president of Columbia, Connick's label.

"A lot of these songs are great songs," says the New Orleans native. "Some, like 'The Very Thought of You,' were very much of that time in terms of music structure. The difference in the songs from era on Only You is the simplicity. The melodies are direct; the harmonies are direct. There wasn't a whole lot of stuff going on in the songs. They were easy to understand, sort of poetic in their own way."

In arranging the album, Connick worked with orchestras of about 60 pieces. On tour, however, he's scaled down to a band of 17 players.

"If you have enough wine before the show, you won't notice the difference," he quips.

Connick, one of the most successful performers of his generation, has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide and garnered favorable attention for his roles in movies (1990's Memphis Belle, 1995's Copycat and others) and on TV (2001's South Pacific and two seasons on Will & Grace). Over the years, he has noticed some similarities between acting and singing.

Connick says succinctly, "When you're looking at dialogue in a movie script, you have to break it down and avoid cliches - same with interpreting lyrics."

He's currently working on a film, a musical comedy called Ben Invention about an inventor named Ben Franklin. Connick will star and compose the music for the movie. No release date has been announced. In the meantime, Connick will carry his tour through the summer, making sure to get back home to New York during the off periods. His wife and their three daughters - Georgia, 8, Sara Kate, 6 and Charlotte, 2 - live there.

"It's tough to be away so much, but it's the nature of what I do," the crooner says. "The good thing is that I'm not away from home too long."

Where the love is real.

Harry Connick Jr. plays Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, Sunday night at 7:30. Tickets are $40-$75 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-587-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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