MUSIC: Harry Connick Jr.

A headliner at this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, Harry Connick Jr. has a new CD, Oh My Nola, which roams across the New Orleans canon. For a pianist and singer with his own purchase on big band swing, this album reaches back to early inspirations. Connick has a grand voice – mellow, urbane (with hints of Sinatra), and racingly vibrant; he’s also a link in the chain of Crescent City keyboard players, from Jelly to Art Neville, Dr. John and Booker to Henry Butler.

It’s still a gamble to choose rhythm and blues standards planted in the common memory for new takes. The fans will judge you against songs that make them feel young and people who buy water here can be ruthless when it comes to memory.

Oh My Nola exudes sentimentality – in the most refined sense. Consider  “Someday.” In the classic 1950s cut (with lyrics by Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King), the troubadour bluesman Smiley Lewis comes at you, full-throated and backed by hot horns, wailing over that gal pal all gone:       
Sommmme dayyyyy
you’ll want me like I
  want you
But I’ll be gawnnn
With somebody new

Many years later, Uncle Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band recorded a tender, autumnal “Someday” in a jazz-ensemble arrangement, the tempo much slower, with a sweet curl of a lilt on “day” and a voice seasoned by time. Uncle Lionel makes “Someday” his own song, a true achievement.

Connick’s “Someday” uses a gliding piano, shorn of shouting horns, to deliver the essentials of youth: a blue tone to the vocals that gives way to bursting octaves that suggest some whoopee with that someone new. The message of the voice by Smiley and Uncle Lionel is “Man’s Loss;” Connick stresses the new “She” as “Man’s Gain.” The young and the bold. Cut, print.

 Connick is a major celebrity via his career in film, TV and stage; but his hold on New Orleans is pure. He teamed with Branford Marsalis and Habitat for Humanity to get the Musicians Village in the 9th Ward off the ground. He rolled into Donna’s on Rampart Street for a late night set a few weeks before Carnival with his daddy and others. That’s a litmus test for roots surpassed only by a sighting at the Mother-in-Law Lounge on North Claiborne Avenue.

On Oh My Nola, Connick uses a serious lineup of local talent as instrumentalists and vocalists for choruses – among them Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Mark Braud, Mark Mullins, Lucien Barbarin, Bill Huntington and the 19-year-old piano wizard Jonathan Batiste, a student at Juilliard. Connick pays tribute to them like brothers in the liner notes.

Dusting off a not-so-frequently played Dixieland gem, “Sheik of Araby,” Connick employs Mark Braud’s bouncing trumpet line as he sings:
Well, I’m the sheik of
  Araby … at night
when you’re asleep
into your tent I’ll creep

backed by a lusty choral refrain “without no pants on!” courtesy of Barbarin, Mullins, Geoff Burke and Craig Klein.

The standout single and most powerful song on Oh My Nola is “All These People,” Connick’s own composition that features a second vocalist, Kim Burrell. The Toussaint-esque melody with a funk shuffle commemorates what Connick saw on a visit to the Morial Convention Center during the aftermath of Katrina.
There were all these people
Oh, just waiting there
Nobody came, nobody saw
Nobody wanted to go
  that far
I was so damned scared …
I held the hand of a
  crazy man.

Burrell’s cool voice in the later verses magnifies the haunting beauty of “All These People,” a song sure to rank among Connick’s best.

As a gangly pre-teen, Connick had an ironic mentor in James Booker, the manic piano prince who wore a star-spangled eye patch and later died of drugs; yet Booker had a certain tenderness and greatly gave of himself to the boy. Booker’s spirit hovers over “All These People” and as Connick dips into the Lee Dorsey/Allen Toussaint songbag for his own version of “Working in the Coal Mine” and Toussaint’s “Yes We Can” – as in “make a better world” – he has hit the stratosphere as an entertainer and artist; but as Oh My Nola declares in abundance, the roots roll with him. Good show, Harry.

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