Harry Connick Jr. lets the good times roll at Tanglewood
Bourbon Street Parade, That’s a Plenty, Didn’t He Ramble, Doctor Jazz, My Love is Here to Stay, Stompin’ at the Savoy, It Had to be You, Tico Tico, Entry of the Gladiators, How Great Thou Art, You’re a Fine Fine Thing, It’s a Wonderful World, Nasty Blues, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, When the Saints Go Marching In
Harry Connick’s loud and lovely New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration brought a capacity crowd to its feet on June 23, 2018, in the Tanglewood Shed. After the first four songs, which were over amplified to the point that melody and harmony were indistinguishable over the crashing cymbals and thumping bass, the sound crew finally got its grip. In up-tempo Bourbon Street Parade (usually performed as a march) and That’s a Plenty, aggressive trumpet and trombone solos hinted at the industrial Dixieland, the bane of serious jazz aficionados.Lenox
But once the volume ratcheted down, the gorgeous, foot-tapping, Haitian- and African-derived polyrhythms emerged.
Yet in this concert, sadly, the ensemble improvisations and vivid counterpoint among the instruments were missing. In the tradition, each player in a quintet, sextet, or septet listens acutely to the others’ invented melodic lines. High-stepping ragtime lightly lifts the dance; blues and spirituals summon the suffering and aspirations for deliverance from slavery and oppression; and whiffs of late Romantic harmony, particular by the pianists’ inventions, together give New Orleans jazz style its distinctive glory.
Mr. Connick’s program offered a fine tour of his talents, spanning all aspects of his storied career – all, in fact, but his film and television acting.
- His recording at nine years of age of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Doctor Jazz” contained both a child’s imitation of Louis Armstrong’s guttural voice and a precocious grasp of the master’s rhythmic anticipations and suspensions, which affected every singer from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra to every contemporary pop star.
- His piano playing demonstrated a powerful left hand, with impressively unerringly rhythm on boogie-woogie patterns, and a right hand resplendent of Art Tatum-derived runs and arpeggiosand Errol Garner’s stunning, rhythmically offset octaves.
- His singing was inflected with Gospel melismas, Tony Bennett-inspired romantic yearnings, scat nonsense straight out of early Armstrong, and a firm sensibility of which simple phrases best offset traditional and contemporary New Orleans rhythms. This was Connick’s strong suit, and much of it was deeply affecting, especially his tribute to the love of his life, Jill Goodacre, “You’re a Fine, Fine Thing.”
- His few trumpet solos reflected the foundational concentration on the melody and rhythm in the hands of the dance ensemble masters Kid Sheik, Sharkey Bonano, and Kid Thomas Valentine. But Connick’s demonstration of circular breathing by sustaining an open B flat for a good minute seemed principally intended to coax cheers from an adoring crowd. (Hint to aspiring showboats: It’s not hard the learn this gimmick.)
- His tap-dancing provided a straightforward introduction, in duet performance with a truly brilliant performer, Luke Hawkins, whose overlaid rhythms and spiraling jumps and turns brought forward yet another wonderful New Orleans tradition, where kids on the street begin their dance careers by holding forth for tourists on the sidewalks the French Quarter with bottle caps sewn to their sneakers.
- His band’s cascades of rhythm, energized by a magnificent drummer, Arthur Lantin, and guitarist Jonathan DuBose, Jr., and trombonist Lucian Barbarin, brought the crowd to its feet several times, especially on a “nasty” fast blues brimming with devastating riffs. Your reviewers couldn’t resist jumping into the aisle to join the dance.
- His portable bass drum and top-cymbal topped off the evening, sparking the distinctive shuffle of a Mardi Gras parade through the Shed. Firm, steady, and syncopated, Connick pulled the audience into marching behind the trumpets, clarinets, snare drums, banjos, and Sousaphone, a splendid “second line” to “The Saints Go Marching In.” A couple of Tanglewood umbrellas were sighted, bobbing up and down to the beat.
- His deep knowledge of New Orleans musical history was evident in spoken asides throughout the evening, offering reverence to such iconic figures as his “musical idol,” Louis Armstrong; to the heartfelt New Orleans funerals and their accompanying parades to and from the burying grounds; to the inextricable connections of music with dance and costume; and, tellingly to his childhood piano teacher James Booker. Known also as “The Black Chopin” and “The Bayou Maharajah,” neither his African-American ethnicity, his homosexuality, nor his use and abuse of alcohol and drugs diminished Booker’s esteem him in the eyes of Connick’s parents. At home, he asserted in a rising voice to strong applause, “we were color-blind, gender-blind, and politics-blind.”
Booker was a formidable pianist and vocalist, with a distinctive gift for left hand “stride” rhythms, jazz adaptations of pop songs and European classics, and fashionable dress. Over his left eye, he wore a patch with a star, which Connick professed never to have asked about. Although Booker’s European tours required him to wear suit and tie on distinguished stages, far and away the best examples of his oeuvre come from bars in New Orleans. There, he felt at home in the company of his people and awed visitors. Here he is, presenting “Papa Was a Rascal” over a locomotive panoply of New Orleans rhythms at the Maple Leaf Bar. Note the quotations of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” after the rhythmic warning, “We all got to watch out for the C.I.A.,” and the fetching call and response with the audience.
Louis Armstrong, Connick’s idol frequently ended his All-Stars’ performance with this iconic New Orleans war-horse. In this 1959 performance in Spain, his daring high-register excursions and charming vocals precede a generous and respectful tribute to his sidemen, who included the renowned Billy Kyle, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Peanuts Hucko, clarinet, Danny Barcelona, drums, and Velma Middleton, vocalist. Note also Armstrong’s, Young’s, and Hucko’s interweaving, contrapuntal melody lines. This is ensemble improvisation, squarely in the tradition, as was closing this satisfying concert with this vivid reminiscence.