Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Big Band Blowout

Harry Connick Jr. and friends star on 'Great Performances' 
By Dave Walker, Times-Picayune

Filmed in July at New York's Neil Simon Theater, tonight's "Great Performances" is a document of Harry Connick Jr.'s 2010. 

"That's exactly what it was," said the New Orleans-born singer, songwriter, arranger, bandleader
 and actor, who spent the year touring the world with a big band, hitting concert stages in places ranging from Abu Dhabi to Birmingham, Ala. 

"It's kind of a snapshot of what we were doing in

Connick's touring schedule this year will bring him to New Orleans on April 4, but the stage
 performance captured for tonight's PBS special took a little of the city to audiences around the globe. 

Connick and band swing through a few standards ("The Way You Look Tonight" and "All the
 Way," among others), but an extended sequence features New Orleans trombonist Lucien 
Barbarin and trumpeter Mark Braud contributing to a rousing rundown of songs and themes most locals will find familiar, including "Bourbon Street Parade" and "Light the Way," Connick's tribute to parade flambeaux from his musical "Thou Shalt Not." 

In addition, James Booker, one of Connick's piano teachers, is fondly recalled during on-stage

"I probably first met him when I was 7 or 8 at Jazz Fest," Connick said in a recent interview. "He
 came to my house and gave me lessons. He would call me and say, 'I'm playing at this place. 

You want to come down and listen?

"He was a sweet guy. He had some clinical mental problems and he was a victim of drugs and
 alcohol. Fortunately, I have the type of parents that sort of saw beyond all that. It wasn't like, 'Get this dopehead out of the house.' It was, 'Please come in and teach my son.' 

"Think about the opportunity! I was the most fortunate kid in the world."

That good fortune extended to exposure to other world-class musicians who happened to live and
 work here, too. 

All of them, it sometimes seems, walk on stage with Connick.

"If I look back to the people I played with, and the people who really taught me, it's like a who's
 who of some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time," Connick said. "I remember one night showing up to a wedding reception. It was George Porter on bass and Walter Washington on guitar. I was 14. 

"One night I showed up at a club and James Black was the drummer. The first tune I called was
 'Magnolia Triangle,' which is in 5/4. The bass player's looking at me like, 'That's like going into the ring with Mike Tyson.'" 

Black wrote the song, and performed it on "Monkey Puzzle," the Ellis Marsalis Quartet's seminal
 1963 album. Marsalis was another of Connick's New Orleans mentors.

"So I start playing, and halfway into the first chorus of a solo, Black puts his sticks down, goes to the bar and gets a beer, and leaves," Connick said. "He's like, 'I'm not going to waste my time with this idiot.' Think about that, versus growing up in a place where there's no music scene." 

Connick said that composing his concert song list is usually a night-by-night task. The lineup
 changes continually as new arrangements are worked in and others rotate out. 

"Usually the songs kind of have a life cycle," he said. "I'll write an arrangement, and we'll perform
 it awhile. If it's a good arrangement, we'll keep it. Sometimes, we'll only play it once.

You could've
 recorded the first night of the tour and it would've been a completely different concert. 

"That tune 'Light the Way,' I had written the chart the day-of or the day before we recorded it.
 Somebody had said, 'How come you don't play "Light the Way?"' So I did an arrangement. We'll play it and I'll get tired and we'll drop it." 

Audiences don't seem to show the same impatience with Connick and his music. Although he
 acts in the upcoming film "Dolphin Tale" -- due for release in 2011, it costars Charles Martin Smith, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd -- he's otherwise in an intense concertizing phase of his career. 

Connick seems headed for a far-and-wide touring schedule this year, too.
 "Abu Dhabi, Istanbul -- those are the kind of places where -- this is terrible to admit -- I get there and the show is almost a distraction," he said. "You have to realize that's why I'm here, to play this show, but it's interrupting my shopping or my restaurant tour of Istanbul. Sometimes you get upset that you have to stop the tourist stuff. You do, and yet it's an amazing lifestyle. It really, really is." 

Connick said he's always surprised when his music is well-known in distant concert halls, and
 equally delighted when other aspects of his career are better known than his music. 

"I'll be in a place like Huntsville and someone will say, 'What are you doing in town?' And I'll say,
 'I'm singing.' They'll say, 'Oh, you're a singer? We thought you were on "Will & Grace." You just never know. 

"I'm at a point in my life where I love to play, and sometimes you go out in these places and
 there's a full house and you say, 'How do they know?' Maybe it's the Internet or something. It really kind of blows you away." 
. . . . . . . . 
Dave Walker can be reached at or 504.826.3429. Read more TV 
coverage at Follow him at 
'Great Performances: Harry Connick Jr. 
In Concert on Broadway' 
Today, 7 p.m. 
©2011 timespic

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