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Music review: Harry Connick Jr. and his Big Band at the Hollywood Bowl

August 15, 2010 |  5:15 pm
Harry connick 1

Although this wasn’t his first time performing at the Hollywood Bowl, Harry Connick Jr. was surprised by how chilly summer nights could be in L.A. “This is cold -- this isn’t cool,” he said Friday, the first of his two-night weekend gig. He joked that the temperature was giving his voice a tremulous Julio Iglesias lilt, but his performance grew sultrier when he unleashed some New Orleans heat in the second half.
The first part of the concert, featuring Connick’s Big Band playing alongside the Los Angeles Philharmonic, included standards from his 2009 Grammy-nominated release, “Your Songs.” He wore a sharp black suit with loosely knotted black tie as he crooned such perennials as “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Smile” and “All the Way.” With his assured delivery matching his outward elegance, he looked and sounded like the dapper Southern-bred son of Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett. The tie eventually came off, but his manner retained its old school class.
When he wasn’t accompanying himself on the piano, Connick would often fall into freeze-frame mode, his style purely internal, singing with his eyes closed, as though the words were rippling from his heart against his will. No neo-Rat Pack cockiness for this inheritor of the Sinatra mantle. He’s more a Method actor of the American songbook, turning lyrics into an occasion for private moments publicly revealed. 

Harry connick 3Self-deprecating charm is his stock in trade. When an anecdote goes astray, such as the one he told about his early break when Rob Reiner asked him to contribute to the score for the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally,” Connick, 42 but still as playful a “junior" as ever, parodied his own storytelling ability and cracked a bashful smile that ignited audience affection with brush-fire abandon.
In his intro to “Hey There” from “The Pajama Game,” Connick talked about how difficult it was for him to put his improvisational ways on hold when he starred in the musical’s 2006 Broadway revival. He interpreted the song in character back then, but Friday night he allowed himself to sing it as himself.  Having seen his Tony-nominated performance, I can vouch that both approaches get the job done. But he drew out more personal color at the Bowl, his voice drifting in pools of romantic wonder, as though nothing in the whole universe could be more important.

Reliable as Connick's vocals are, the first half of the bill (with the exception of “Bésame Mucho,” which was passionately wrung to perfection) would have undoubtedly sounded better indoors. (Ballads of the "It Had to Be You" variety demand climate control.)  But Connick’s lustrous musicianship and the propulsive playing of his Big Band, seamlessly accompanied by the L.A.  Phil, more than compensated.
The party, however, really took off after intermission. Connick, sporting a more casual all-black ensemble, marched over to an upright piano and started banging out some French Quarter jazz. He performed selections from “Your Songs” in the first half; now he was free to dive into his songs.

Lucien Barbarin, the ace New Orleans trombonist, made a great partner in crime. Connick perks up in collaboration, growing noticeably livelier in the company of another talent. And these two strutted, sashayed and even mock-flirted together in Mardi Gras jams, in which high spirits were the order of business. "Bourbon Street Parade" was not just one of the ecstatic second act numbers but a unifying goal.   

Connick bantered with the audience throughout the show, wondering whether those sitting way up in the back even knew who they were seeing. He teasingly apologized to the younger set for not being Justin Bieber and made quips about the unflattering camera angles of those snapping pictures as he pranced along the catwalk. He even referenced YouTube sensation Antoine Dodson (of "Bed Intruder Song" fame), winking good-naturedly at the fickleness of the pop spotlight.  

A duet with someone like his “Pajama Game” costar Kelli O’Hara costar (who apparently joined him when she saw his show in New York) would have added to the festivities. Surely, Connick could have found a singer in town who would have relished the opportunity. But conscious of costs, by his own tongue-in-cheek admission, he even made do without the luxury of a conductor.

Yet who could complain with music so uplifting and a star so modestly ingratiating? If any “American Idol” producers were in attendance during the weekend, Connick, reportedly in contention for one of the judging spots next season, should be getting a phone call. The exuberant thrill of his lightly worn expertise gets only better with age.    

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

Photos: Top and bottom: Harry Connick Jr. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times


Harry Connick Jr. plays it off the cuff on Broadway and at Hollywood Bowl

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Comments (11)

This was, hands down, one of the best concerts this year. He immediately made you feel comfortable and created an intimate setting in this large amphitheater. The combination of his band and the L.A. Philharmonic was a lovely marriage. Time flew by, before I knew it the evening and performance was over. But in the end, I was entertained and so happy for the opportunity to attend and to be part of the event. While he may not be wild about me, I am wild about Harry.
Good job, thanks.

Two hours of Harry Connick Jr is two hours too much. If you were boozed up at a club in New Orleans - okay. But in the Hollywood Bowl this rambling self indulgent performance went on and on. It was not surprising considering this dreary season. Connick has some charm, was far better than the Beatles evening, the agonizing Bugs Bunny Warner Bros. promo or the bus and truck production of Rent. Obviously, under the current direction of Deborah Borda - there is no real impresario running this gigantic feeding zone meets grueling entertainment. Borda makes nearly a million a year but she's really just a pencil pusher and no great producer. So the season as no themes. The clientele has totally changed. The people next to us in the adjoining box blabbered on through Connick's performance. The former subscribers gave it up and now its just for hire. The dining has turned into eating Arbey's and Subway sandwiches throughout the performance. Gallo wine was being pitched on the way into the boxes. It was wine tasting but more like a scene out of "Sideways." At the Saturday night performance there was obviously a loser from American Idol who stood ogling Connick through the entire performance. She danced, waved and panted. She was no beauty. Connick finally gave her a hello but she persisted to the point that at $120 a ticket you thought the bowl had turned into a reality show. Connick moved around the bowl, on the runway - which reminds you of an old time burlesque theatre. He really can't dance or shuffle - when he moves its very strange. He closes his eyes when he sings which is rather amateurish. Otherwise he's charming, amusing and has a very interesting voice. He needs someone to edit his act, get some continuity and, perhaps, have a couple of "big songs" that are up theatrical pieces - rather than this endless dirge of downer music. Doesn't he get we are now in a depression. As for the Bowl program - you can tell Miss Borda has totally cut the budget. The LA Philharmonic is no where in site most of the time. And none of this audience will be heading down to Disney Hall. For the Bowl - its now take the money and run and sell a lot of slop to the audience.

It was a great concert & Harry is a great musician. The fact that he is good looking & also funny is just icing on the cake. I too noticed the absence back-up singers or a female duet. He did mentioned the Hollywood Bowl has a curfew which puts a limit on things including encores.

I agree with Pasadena jag -- Connick Jr.'s performance was the best of a sub-par season. At least we could hear the words -- not so with "Rent" where the singers were losing a shouting match with the musicians. But the place was packed, so management must think that they are doing things right. Do we really need another tiresome John Williams concert or the USC band playing the 1812 Overture? One thing that management can do to improve things is to either bring back John Mauceri or, better, appoint Thomas Wilkins as permanent conductor of the Bowl orchestra. Then give the conductor lots of leeway in planning the season.

The Hollywood Bowl doesn't have a curfew. Its called the Musicians Union. They don't need encores. Just cut these "stars" down to the second half - as they use to do with major stars. The bowl is now basically a booking house. The USC band (non union and free) and an evening of John Williams promoting Star Wars. Maybe Borda is right - the audience is now basically something akin to her. Shoppers from Wal-Mart for a night out. Its now about wine, food and something akin to American Idol with an orchestra.

Since I'm one of those itinerant Bowl attendees, I can't comment on Pasadena Jag's observations about this season, but I will say this: Jag's assessment of Connick's performance was narrow-minded, small, and "who do you think you are?" incredulous. I mean, who do you think you are, Jag? Harry Connick has had a 20-year career of singing in just this style, so clearly he's doing something right. Maybe you're a Sinatra/Bennett purist, but I'd venture to guess that Frank, when he wasn't at his most surly and bitter, loved it that someone like Connick (and now Michael Buble) took time to actually sing songs without backup singers, dancers, light shows, etc.

I went to the Saturday night show and sat way in the back (one of those who were just listening to the end of his last song while he was up front bantering with the audience in prep for the next song), and I agree with McNulty that the first half would have been better indoors. Also, the Bowl really needs for its shows to be louder. I mean, if I could have a hushed conversation with my wife the sound system's too weak. The second half of the show was fantastic. I loved the way Connick clowned around with his mates on the stage, with the audience, and made fun of himself. It's was makes him so crazy charming. By the end of the show, I was so wishing for more of that New Orleans flavor.

I haven't followed American Idol in years, but I would definitely go back if Harry was a judge and watch every show(minus the try-outs, those are so boring and rude)

Dear Pasadena Jag:
Since you're obviously so much better than the riff raff sitting behind you (and next to you) and THE authority on what is good and what isn't, I guess you'll have to get your culture somewhere else. I recall you saying in a previous review that you had no intention of renewing your subscription tot he Bowl. It'll give someone a chance who actually enjoys the concerts to move up a bit I'm sure. Maybe you seat will come up on Goldstar for me to purchase next year.

I was at Saturday's concert with a couple of friends. We had a blast. Harry Connick is charming and real. I loved the second half best, the music of New Orleans is just wonderful. We had seats in the middle, but I have season seats on Thursday night in section E. The weekend concerts are not Tuesday/Thursday classical concerts, they are to be pop type concerts.
The Hollywood Bowl does have a curfew the concert has to be over by 11:00pm which is a county rule. When concerts go over the 11:00pm the Bowl gets fined for every minute they go over. The Hollywood Bowl is a county park.

More pertinent to this argument is selecting a start time of 8.30pm for your concert and then complaining there's no time for encores.

Steven Ball wrote -- "He did mentioned the Hollywood Bowl has a curfew which puts a limit on things including encores."

pasadena jag replied -- "The Hollywood Bowl doesn't have a curfew. Its called the Musicians Union."

People who call themselves "ArtsBeatLA" should know that the starting times of Bowl concerts are not chosen by the performers. Weekend shows at the Bowl have been starting at 8:30 for several decades. And "pasadena jag" is wrong while Mara is right: Hollywood Bowl does have a "curfew" because of the county rules, and musicians union has absolutely nothing to do with it.
Actually, pj is wrong in many other ways too. For example, "LA Philharmonic is no where in site most of the time". Aside for being a spelling disaster, this statement is rather ludicrous considering that the Philharmonic is performing no less than 35 concerts during the 11 weeks of this summer season at the Bowl. Clarifying for those who are mathematically challenged, that means more than three concerts per week on average. For instance, this week (a rather typical one) the orchestra is playing four concerts with three different programs under three different conductors. Nowhere in sight? Au contraire, pj, very prominently present on site, so to speak.
Also, most of the things pj has been complaining about, such as Bugs Bunny programs and John Williams movie music weekends as well as participation of USC band in Tchaikovsky Spectaculars, have all begun around two to three decades ago if not earlier. In other words, they became Bowl traditions under the "reign" of the late Ernest Fleischmann (whom pj has praised quite deservedly) and long before Deborah Borda (whom pj has been demonizing with suspicious consistency) became LA Phil's new "supreme executive boss" in early 2000.
So, pj, you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but don't make it into a personal attack before getting your facts straight.