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