By Tony Gieske
Harry Connick Jr.’s opening night at the Hollywood Bowl was his package from the word go. His trumpet man, Mark Braud, played the national anthem solo, on top of an inventive beat, giving it a New Orleans flair that upstaged the Bowl patrons trying vainly to sing it as they do before every other concert.
Tonight it was Connick doing the singing, a job he handles like no one else on earth, Louis Armstrong having ascended. Connick is such a thoroughgoing musician that his singing fits into the charts as though he wrote them, deploying the same weight and savvy as the instrumentalists.
These included the string section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which sailed the pop mainstream with seamanship to burn, and not a drop of condescension. Not many philharmonics in the world could pull that off.
Connick’s mini-group managed to sound as powerful as the full size big band he brought to the Bowl a few years ago, even though this time there were only two trumpets, two trombones and two saxophones, plus a bass and drums.
The Connick piano, a hybrid of Monk, Fats Waller, James Booker and Cecil Taylor, sometimes all in the same blues bar, is a big band all in itself.
The night air was quite a bit more than chilly, and the strain showed just a little in the Connick voice. But he made it perform, trouper that he is, and not many singers could have done what his musicianship did with such familiar standards as “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Smile,” his When Harry Met Sally smash “It Had to Be You” and the evening’s most affecting song “You Don’t Know Me.”
The second half of the show fell precipitously in candor with series of worn hometown faves like “St. James Infirmary,” “How Come You Do Me Like You Do, Do, Do,” and “Didn’t He Ramble.” Here he was joined by Lucien Barbarin, the growl trombonist, who played with childlike ardor and little musical interest. This was after Connick demonstrated his unsuspected skill on trumpet on “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Barbarin, the great nephew of legendary drummer Paul Barbarin, patted Connick’s rear, which the star then shook like a bowl full of gabardine covered jelly.
They did some other boring stuff, but I’d rather credit the stalwarts of the Connick band: Jerry Weldon, sinuous saxophone; Kevin Bryan, screech trumpet; Neal Caine, tireless bass; Arthur Latin, tireless drums; and the slender, great and beautiful first violinist of the Philharmonic strings, Sylvia D’Avanzo.
Harry Connick, Jr. performs again at the Hollywood Bowl tonight.
Read and see more of Tony’s jazz essays and photos at his personal web site tonyspage.com.