Harry Connick, Jr. / Branford Marsalis: A Duo Occasion

Connick had to work to keep up with Marsalis, which he did apart from in quality of banter. Even though he'd the only voice mike.

Harry Connick, Jr. / Branford Marsalis

A Duo Occasion

MPAA rating: N/A
Label: Marsalis Music
UK Release Date: 2005-11-14
US Release Date: 2005-11-22
Artist website

The Ottawa Jazz Festival programmed this pair in the wake of Occasion, the planned Marsalis label solo piano CD by Connick: Branford Marsalis's plan to guest on two titles on that set got changed during the studio session, which turned into a duet. And, I suppose, it also functioned as a rehearsal for the present performance, a proper concert, announcements and banter and other factors operating to mutually complementary effect. Not least because for so much of it the pair just get on with playing.

There is some sort of standing joke about Connick supposing he is the man who really ought to be playing piano in Branford M's band. What happens on this date suggests the question could hardly be a serious one, since unlike, say, Joey Calderazzo, the most recent Branford M. pianist I've heard -- and unlike scores, hundreds of jazz pianists worldwide in performance, from Teddy Wilson to Paul Kuhn (ancient German and also like Connick a crooner) -- Connick shows scant interest in building a stylistically uniform jazz improvisation pretty much anywhere on this disc.

This is not a negative or negating observation, nor is his telling the Ottawa audience at the start that among a range of activities (acting, singing), what matters most to him is piano. He has technique, he accesses several historical styles (I mean much better than merely approximates them), and a sophisticated harmonic sense. At least in this sort of music, this set with that saxophonist (who is musically a class above Connick and most others), he's a highly congenial eccentric or idiosyncratic pianist on the margin of a jazz mainstream. Exactly the same can be said of numbers of Caribbean and Latin American and African pianists -- resemblances with and differences from Eddie Palmieri might be interesting to check out, although the ethos is more that of Professor Longhair, or James Booker when not hopped up and playing rock with extensive quotations from Rakhmaninov concerti! Of course, pianists on the margin of jazz, if they aren't effete -- and Connick's very much not that -- are a huge resource.

The opening track, "Chattanooga Choo Choo", is a perfect example of the Connick collage, with stretches worthy of some less outlandish free improvisation and fragmentary, but substantial passages of stride and swing and other jazz interspersed. In comes Branford M. for the remainder of the performance, hailed in advance and at length as Harry's hero. Later on, Connick stares out with an awed expression at the saxophonist and sighs, "I can't believe I'm here like this." Then, he says, this guy (Branford M.) used to beat up on the eight year old Connick. Almost nicely in comparison with the behaviour toward little Harry of an apparent monster called Wynton.

After Marsalis's "Brown World", built like several of his compositions here around a thematic snippet, there's Branford's "Occasion", composed for the CD session of that name and having all the characteristics of a classic show tune and excellent jazz vehicle. I would have said directly it sounds like a show tune if I hadn't suspected somebody might ask me: but precisely which show tune?

A Connick tune called "Valentine's Day" follows, meditative and not without suggestions that this composition has actually caused Marsalis, and Connick, to wonder quite what on earth to do next, how to improvise on it? After this number come the allegations of Wynton's juvenile delinquency, and after that there's "Good to Be Home", in the course of which Connick's virtuosity as a footstomper is manifest. This item is at home in the general area where distinctions between blues and gospel and James Booker-ish New Orleans piano are faintest, and it inspires the pair, very downhome, and gets the audience going. A lot different is the sometimes Bartokian European concert music of "Virgoid", the name mocking sometime tendencies in terribly serious titling of jazz compositions. There is also some banter about Harry and Branford both having been born under the sign of Virgo (is Connick a characteristic Virgo in denying that he could list the other astrological signs, and saying his intense awareness of Virgo characteristics is in direct contrast to his ignorance of pretty well the rest of the Zodiac? Aw, forget it!).

"I Like Love More" comes from Connick's Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not, which he describes as having had "a short engagement" on the New York stage, a fact he very reasonably associates with its grim plot. "Good music, though," Marsalis observes, and I think he probably had the best lines of the night, judging from his and the pianist's facial expressions, and the audience reaction. Since Connick has the only voice microphone, the remarks are hard to hear, but Branford's live gig banter is usually good.

There is little or no jazz in the performance of the tune, but Marsalis, for the rest of the concert on soprano, is an absolute master on that instrument. This is equally clear on his composition "Steve Lacy", a beautiful melody very sensitively accompanied and making clear not that Branford Marsalis sounds like the great soprano player to whom the tune's dedicated, but that he has taken up the inspiration to match Lacy's immense range and scope. Forget about his family background, the father who gave Connick piano lessons, et cetera.

I suppose Lacy might have had fun with the playful tune "Spot", to which I immediately attached a first line whose third-last and second-last words are "my" and "dog". Connick goes into some unusual stride piano at the end here, supporting the saxophonist with the harmonically complex left hand work which he features at various times. He fingers groups of notes which neither harmonise nor create plain discords, whether he's soloing on "Chattanooga Choo Choo" or racing along with Marsalis. Chords that are no chords at all? Suspensions of harmonic commitment? The DVD does show that although there are times when this makes him sound as if he was exercising considerable skill in deployment of a boxing glove, his hand remains bare throughout.

The lengthy anecdote accounting for the tune's name "Spot" involves a fish dinner, but on a more personal level I woke up this morning with a severe case of Name That Tune.

"Light the Way" is the tune which was going through my head, and coming as it does in the programme, immediately after the lament for Lacy, it has something of the sense of dancing back from the cemetery in New Orleans: bang on, a stomper. In solo Connick does some of the things Dr. John also does on piano, and Marsalis reaches the critical temperature at which he starts playing Sidney Bechet, the first musical genius of New Orleans.

The encore is Connick's "Chanson du Vieux Carré", a lyrical tribute to his and various Marsalises' hometown of New Orleans. There are some operatic chords from Connick, and some more Bechet in Marsalis's lyrical performance.

I haven't had the chance to hear the studio CD by these two men, from which they drew the repertoire for this live concert. When I looked up a review of the CD, the first I found was by somebody who'd heard the concert and wrote mostly about that. He does have an excuse.







Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pay Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.