Tuesday, May 4, 2010

When Harry met Casey ... and Lee and Crystal and Michael and Aaron

American Idol contestants

American Idol Season 9 Top 5 perform the music of Frank Sinatra, with mentoring by Harry Connick Jr.

It's not every day you walk into the "American Idol" studio and find Harry Connick Jr. at the piano, but that's where the jazz legend was, dressed Monday casual in a baggy white button-down and loose black pants, walking Big Mike through his big-band arrangement -- one that Harry himself came up with -- and making sure the Top 5 contender was comfortable with the twists and turns of a Sinatra song. Judging from the fist bump at the end, it was all good.

It's Ol' Blue Eyes week, which means it felt a little like a Christmas rom-com and a lot like "When Harry Met Sally" on Stage 36. Only this was when Harry met Lee, and Casey, Crystal and Aaron, along with the aforementioned Michael Lynche. Truth be told, Harry Connick is one heck of a multi-tasker. Not only did he orchestrate all the parts of each individual song, but he also played conductor, cheerleader and vocal coach.

The process, however, was pretty much the same. Each contestant got at least three run-throughs plus an instrumental to sing along to sans amplification, with musical director Rickey Minor looking on from the judges' table. The band, which includes nine string players, 13 brass and one drummer, looks like it was put together by HCJ. And as we previously reported, no one is allowed to play an instrument this week.

How did that pan out? Kind of nicely, I must admit. Without the weight and obstruction of a guitar, however minor, it seemed as though the Top 5 opened up vocally -- like they got more power, volume and reach with that little bit of extra air. Or maybe that's just confidence taking control. After all, it's been a couple of months of high-stress competition.

And how was Season 9's guitar golden boy Casey James handling the adjustment? "We'll see," he said with a hint of skepticism, then explained how he'd come to terms with what he "signed up for." Meaning, he's not driving this well-oiled machine. Nevertheless, Casey was pleasantly surprised by this new guitar-less sound. "Walking around sounds different," he enthused in a moment of self-discovery. Leave it to stage manager Debbie Williams to chime in with a very important message for Casey: "You know who we should fix you up with? Kellie Pickler." As if Casey needs help in the dating department. Really, Debbie.

We kid, but in all seriousness -- someone's gotta go every week. This is what Casey James was explaining after mentioning our shiva for Siobhan. That's right, the guy in the bottom two was trying to console me. I'm not sure if that meant he'd resigned himself to the possibility that Tuesday is his last night or whether Casey was just speaking the truth, but I liked the way he ended his thoughts: "Well, you have two more days to mourn." And: "What matters to me me is what happens after the show." He's wiser than he even realizes...

Speaking of smarts, Aaron Kelly's got some, otherwise how would he have made it to the Top 5? With his sleeves rolled up (as always) and his schoolwork out of the way, he was down to big-band business and what he does best: belt. Last week, I asked him about hitting the "money note" -- that big sustain at the end of every one of his performances. "It's not that I'm trying to show off," he explained, "it's what feels right for the song. Sometimes, I feel like it's gonna be boring if it doesn't have a big, grand ending." And going one step further in proving he's Season 9's David Archuleta, little Aaron dutifully hugged everyone within arm's reach (Crystal, vocal coach Debra Byrd, Fox staffers etc.), vintage Archie style. No wonder he keeps getting all those votes!

As for our front-runners, needless to say, Lee and Crystal handled their starring turns with aplomb, even if somewhat fidgety without their instruments. So instead of the strum, it was the snap, which seems all too appropriate considering the genre du jour. Lee was especially thumb-happy and also looking quite chummy with Mr. Connick, while Casey, who held onto his microphone for dear life, was simply starstruck. "I'm not even alive right now, it's like I'm in a dream," he said while watching Harry have his way with a Hammond organ.

To that end, expect a little New Orleans groove in Tuesday's episode (it is, after all, Harry Connick's hometown), as evidenced by Crystal and Rickey Minor's impromptu twirl at the base of the stage while Lee sang his heart out. Similarly, Lee and Casey both stood at attention while Crystal ran through her Sinatra number. But even with only 30-some people in the room, the show's last girl standing garnered the loudest applause from this influential focus group. Next stop: final four.

-- Shirley Halperin
L.A. Times, American Idol Tracker
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