For those like Harry Connick, Jr. who grew up in New Orleans, the Crescent City has always been a constant state of mind. The love that he and the members of his band share for this birthplace of so much of America’s musical culture has defined all of their performances, but never more so than on Chanson du Vieux Carré, the third disc in the Marsalis Music label’s series Connick on Piano.
The album was released in October on the same day as Columbia Records issues Harry's vocal tribute Oh My Nola. A portion of Harry'a royalties of both discs will benefit New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village, the project conceived by Harry and Marsalis Music founder Branford Marsalis to provide affordable housing in the city’s Upper Ninth Ward for displaced musicians and other families. Chanson du Vieux Carré stands out among current New Orleans tributes in that it was conceived and executed well before Hurricane Katrina.
As Harry explains, “I have been writing original music about New Orleans and arranging traditional New Orleans music on my tour bus over a period of years, to hone my skills and to give the band new music to play.”
In May 2003, with his band assembled in Los Angeles’ legendary Capitol Towers Studio A to record his hit Columbia albums Harry for the Holidays and Only You, Harry felt that the time was right to record his New Orleans music.
“I always thought it would be a good idea to record after we got off the road, when everyone’s chops would be strong and we’d be able to fly thought the charts – and that’s what happened,” he says with justifiable pride. “The band sounded great.”
The plan had been to include the results in the Connick on Piano series after earlier volumes had allowed the omnivorously talented Harry to display his instrumental prowess in more intimate settings, a goal realized with his previous Marsalis Music releases Other Hours, by Harry's quartet, and Occasion, Harry's duo encounter with Branford Marsalis. Now the time has come for Chanson du Vieux Carré, a collection that makes several particularly salient points regarding Harry and the talented players who comprise his immediate musical family.
Where his previous Marsalis Music discs have generated a growing appreciation for Harry the pianist and composer, Chanson du Vieux Carré goes a step further by placing a spotlight on his talents as an arranger. Among the clearest indications of Harry's orchestral mastery are the playful backgrounds that support the trumpet solo on “Bourbon Street Parade,” the sultry echoes of Ellington on “Luscious” and the dark urgency and drama as the band casually mixes moods and time signatures on “Ash Wednesday;” but then every track has a moment where the writing turns the familiar into the unexpected. Add three new Harry compositions and some strong piano (in solo on such tracks as “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” and “New Orleans,” and in support throughout,) and you get one of the most complete showcases to date for the leader.
Yet Harry is only one potent presence among many in his Big Band. As fans of his vocal albums and live performances do not need to be told, the big band that Harry leads includes several major talents, including trumpeters Leroy Jones, Roger Ingram and Mark Mullins, trombonists Lucien Barbarin and Craig Klein, and saxophonists Ned Goold, Jimmy Greene, Dave Schumacher and Jerry Weldon. Chanson du Vieux Carré provides significant space for their input, and without exception they rise to the occasion, whether instrumentally or (in the case of Jones on “Bourbon Street Parade” and Barbarin on “Luscious”) vocally.
To an even greater extent, Chanson du Vieux Carré allows the Big Band to shine as a unit. A rarity in both the amount of touring it has logged and the consistency of its personnel, Harry's ensemble is as close as a contemporary big band gets to the roadtested esprit de corps that characterized the legendary orchestras of the Thirties and Forties.
The rhythm section of Harry, bassist Neal Caine and drummer Arthur Latin swings in all gears; the other sections glow or purr as the situation warrants, with a special nod to the astonishing lead trumpet of Ingram; and the common purpose shared by all of the players ensured that even the newer arrangements in the program required no more than two takes.
It all adds up to an uncommon group of artists with an uncommon affection for the music of New Orleans. Be they natives (Harry, Barbarin, Jones, Klein, Mullins,) more recent residents (Caine,) or homeboys by association like Goold and Weldon, every member of the Big Band displays a feeling for the city that is essential to everything that Harry Connick, Jr. is about. Chanson du Vieux Carré is a Crescent City love letter, recorded two years before the deluge yet never timelier than it is today.