Pretty-boy crooner sees New Orleans as a rich stew, marked by cycles of life and death.
Harry Connick Jr. long ago transcended "musician" to become a personality, a celebrity, a star: larger than life. Broadway shows, dramatic acting roles, hunk status –- none of it was unexpected. His appeal from the start came in part from charm and wholesome good looks: that smile and that hair. He entered the mainstream as someone bringing youthfulness to old tunes. Filling 1989's When Harry Met Sally soundtrack with Connick's versions of jazz standards, instead of the original versions in the actual film, was a genius business move by somebody, and a career-boosting moment for Connick. His superstar status as a young Sinatra was cemented through subsequent albums (1990's We Are in Love, 1991's Blue Light, Red Light) that combined standards with originals attuned to the romance and aura of sophistication modern audiences associate with Gershwin, Kern, Porter, et al. In that context (and if you hadn't heard his first two albums), it was easy to forget Connick was from New Orleans -- his music said New York more than it did New Orleans.
Connick wasn't just born in New Orleans, he's from there, and grew from its musical history. He performed around the city from age 6, studied piano with Ellis Marsalis and James Booker. The city made its mark on him, yet the musical styles of New Orleans come and go from Connick's music. In the pre-Harry and Sally albums you can hear it in his playing and choice of songs. On his second album, 1988's 20, the 20-year-old Connick even sang "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" as a duet with Dr. John. For a while after that New Orleans all but disappeared from his music, until 1994's She. For that overt attempt to make Connick hipper (check out his leather jacket on the cover), he leaned toward rock but ended up with an awkward, intermittently enjoyable style of New Orleans funk and blues. Not long after that it was back to big band swing, plus Christmas albums and soft-pop love ballads and Broadway musicals. In his discography as a whole, New Orleans is like the ghost in the background which occasionally makes its presence known, without fully materializing.
That isn't to suggest that Connick himself has ever run from the city; he's always expressed pride, not shame. And when Hurricane Katrina hit, and the US government's ineptness left a void to be filled, he was one of the first celebrities to step to the front, organizing the TV benefit, visiting and aiding stranded residents of the city. Connick's two new albums, Oh, My Nola and Chanson Du Vieux Carrè, are both extensions of that outreach, though the former was planned before the hurricane, and the latter was recorded before it. Instead of going the serious social-commentary route and doing a "Hurricane Katrina" album (though one song does step in that direction), Connick has tapped into his inner pride about the city, his love of its history and culture, and channeled that into two album-length celebrations of New Orleans.
Oh, My Nola's cover photo is all about Connick the star -- it's a pretty-boy model photo that could be an ad for the jeans he's wearing, or the watch. But the album itself might be his least self-focused. And his most personal album at the same time. This is his New Orleans, as the title indicates. The focus is on showcasing the city's rich heritage, musical and otherwise, into an album. But it's clearly from Connick's perspective –- as he puts it in the liner notes, "this recording is all about what New Orleans is to me." Along with New Orleans-themed songs Connick wrote, the material played includes classics from New Orleans legends (Allan Toussaint, Lee Dorsey, James Booker), but also songs which Connick just identifies with the city, sometimes for personal reasons. He sings "Lazy Bones", for example, because his mom often sang it to him.
Oh, My Nola has the demeanor of an old-fashioned crooner and his crackerjack swing band getting heavy into Connick's notion of New Orleans-style music. It has the elegance of Connick's jazz balladry, and the soul of New Orleans. Oh My Nola's opening piano notes would instantly mark it as New Orleans music, even if it wasn't the Toussaint/Dorsey classic "Working in the Coal Mine" that he was singing. He approaches it as a lazy stroll, his singing more soulful than you'd expect from a singer whose last project was a pair of Broadway shows. The horns eventually lift the song closer to big-band territory, but not as much as in the especially brassy "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" that follows. This is what a neo-Sinatra big band playing in New Orleans-style sounds like, and it sounds mighty nice, and diverse.
The city's intersections of jazz, soul, funk, and gospel is where Connick's interests lie. How well Connick and his band handle that diversity is a key factor in this album's success. He sings in a straight-up blues or soul style at times, but not so straight-up that he's over-reaching. Funk and R&B aren't styles that ever make me think of Harry Connick Jr, but he approaches them in a humble way, not over-stepping the boundaries of his talents, instead pulling these styles into what he and his band are capable of. (The closing "Do Dat Thing" even incorporates a melodic element of Parliament's "Do That Stuff" into the background -- who knew Connick was a P-Funk fan?) There's more range here than expected, but no awkward genre reconfigurations. "Let Them Talk" is a surprisingly sweet soul ballad. "Careless Love" has a particularly minimalist set-up for a slick pop album; it's spare enough to feel almost spiritual, grace-filled.
Toussaint's "Yes We Can" too is especially soulful in an inspiring way, lifted up by horns, percussion and a chorus of vocalists suggesting optimism. The liner notes suggest Connick and band weren't thinking about post-Katrina New Orleans when they performed this song of hope, but it sure sounds like they were. That impression that they were performing from a particularly heartfelt place stays through much of the album, elevating it over all other Connick albums in terms of feeling. Even "We Make a Lot of Love" -- a love ballad he rejected from a previous album and returned to here – sounds more emphatic, more heartfelt than most of the many ballads he's sung. Maybe just the nature of a "New Orleans" album in this day and age places the human tragedy of Katrina so firmly behind the proceedings that the emotions run deeper for listeners. Or perhaps that's true for the performers, as well? It sounds like it.
Hurricane Katrina's effects on New Orleans are certainly on Connick's mind. It comes out most explicitly on "All These People", a recollection of Connick's visit with Katrina victims stranded at the convention center. An R&B duet with Kim Burrell, the song's literalness seems unnecessary in the context of Oh My Nola. It's not cloying (which is almost surprising for a songwriter who seldom writes this confessionally), but still unnecessary. It makes literal the feelings the rest of the album expresses more fully through inference.
Connick's tribute "Oh, My Nola" conjures up an image of the city that's as storybook romantic as those conjured up by his covers of standards, but it's also clear he's singing about a real city, with real people past and present. He sings of the ghosts of Louis and Mahalia here, a direction he'll push further on the closing "Do Dat Thing." That one is a party song on the surface, but through it Connick presents his "Nola" as a city filled with ghosts and memories. "Do dat thing" is sung as a spunky call to action today, but he fills the rest of the song with the past, through a gravely spoken list of dead musicians from New Orleans. It marks Oh, My Nola as a memoriam as much as a wish for rebirth, or perhaps even more so.
Oh, My Nola will receive more attention than the simultaneously-released Chanson du Vieux Carrè for the very reason that a vocal album will appeal to a wider audience than an instrumental album. And it deserves it too, as Oh, My Nola is the more substantial LP, and the one that features Connick the most. Though Chanson's subtitle is "Connick on Piano 3", the star here is the band as a whole. Connick takes solos no more often than, say, trumpeter Leroy Jones. And he doesn't sing, while a couple of his band members do. The other star is, of course, New Orleans. At times, the album seems almost more New Orleans-focused than Nola, because the jubilant sound of brass dominates. But it's also stays strictly within one genre. It's entirely big band jazz, capturing the band in one particular state of mind.
Recorded in 2003, just after the band finished a tour, it's a loose, celebratory performance, a big band playing New Orleans music in a loud, to-the-rafters style. In that way it's a bit overblown, and the big-ness of their playing often overshadows the tunes themselves. It's a lark, but one in the vein of the city that inspired it, with a communal feeling and a party mood. Its narrow focus diminishes it strength, especially in comparison to Nola's surprisingly rich stew, but it still bears the distinct mark of New Orleans, and contains a bounty of reminders of the city's musical greatness. It opens with Louis Armstrong and closes with Professor Longhair, and -- as with the city itself -- that's only part of the musical legacy within.