Review: Harry Connick, Jr. balances flamboyance and subtlety at Radio City

Special to Newsday

April 22, 2007
Not a lot has changed about Harry Connick Jr. in the 16 years since he crossed over from being another nifty throwback from New Orleans in the jazz world and became something of a highbrow pop superstar. He still combines genuine affection for the classic American songbook, a ham's love of showmanship, a moderate amount of jazz chops, and an enduring passion for the music of his native New Orleans.

He put them together in canny blends back then and still does today, though in between concert tours, he's built a career as an actor, most recently on Broadway in "The Pajama Game" and in numerous movies and television shows.

Most impressive is how he has split his recording output between vocal projects for a major label, and instrumental endeavors for a small jazz imprint. Now he's on a monthlong tour theoretically to promote his latest recordings, the vocal "Oh My Nola" (Columbia) and "Chanson Du Vieux Carre" (Marsalis Music).

Theoretical because neither recording was explicitly touted during the show. Instead Connick had a good time playing a variety of music, and at times seemed to be making up the set list as he went along. His stellar 11-piece band opened with a medley of classic tunes and Connick originals. At first this seemed like the typical opener: the star comes on and the show gets rolling. Instead, the band worked out for seven minutes including terse punchy solos, then Connick came out, sat down at the piano for a brief solo of his own, and the medley continued for five more minutes.

For the first part of the show, the band roared through New Orleans classics highlighted by several fine solos. The music was first-rate and when the show veered into maudlin moments it did so in a self-aware way; a band member proposed to his girlfriend before a rendition of "It Had to Be You" (a nice moment at a good date gig), and Connick's three daughters joined him to dance for his closing number, Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans." But Connick never lingered on schmaltz, quickly returning to the music.

For much of the second half of the two-hour show, Connick was joined by two veteran New Orleans musicians, trumpeter Leroy Jones and trombonist Lucien Barbarin, who helped him romp through more New Orleans classics. His encore was a solo version of "Sweet Georgia Brown."

"Oh My Nola" addresses the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, but with this show, Connick celebrated the enduring spirit of the Bayou, and to his credit, he left that unsaid too. For all of his flamboyance, Connick possesses an admirable grasp of subtlety.

HARRY CONNICK, JR. All of him. A bit of classic American songbook, a bit of maudlin shtick, and a whole lot of New Orleans. Seen Saturday night at Radio City Music Hall.

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