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

Harry Connick, Jr. / Branford Marsalis
Marsalis Music

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.

RATING 8 / 10
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