By Mark Hughes Cobb - From The Tuscaloosa News
Even in a career as storied as that of Harry Connick Jr., who has been playing and singing professionally with symphonies and jazz bands since his pre-teens, scoring on Broadway, TV and film as well as selling double-platinum albums of standards and originals, there's still room for a first.
As in, Friday's concert will be his first at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, and as far as he and the internet can tell, his debut concert in Tuscaloosa.
"I don't remember," Connick said in a phone interview. "I guess this is the first time."
Tracing 104 pages of his previous concert listings, going back to 1982, shows that Connick has had seven performances in Birmingham, the earliest 1995, the most recent 2010, with shows at Mobile's Saenger Theatre in 2016, and a couple at Huntsville's Von Braun Center, but no Druid City.
It's not too surprising that he hasn't yet hit every city in the world, not because he isn't a relentless worker, but because Connick spreads his artistry far and wide.
Following on child-prodigy years, growing up in New Orleans, drawing on that gumbo of influences, in one year he went from performing with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra on Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 3 Opus 37," to performing a duet with the legendary Eubie Blake at the Royal Orleans Esplanade Lounge on Blake's composition "I'm Just Wild About Harry." That performance was recorded for a documentary called "Jazz Around the World."
Not long after, Connick was recording with a jazz band, which cut the live instrumental "Dixieland Plus" in 1977, mixing standards such as "St. James Infirmary," "St. Louis Blues" and "When the Saints Go Marching In" with one written by him, titled "Bommer's Boogie."
That little stretch took up much of Connick's professional life between ages 9 and 10, and no, there are no digits missing from that reference.
Building on teachers such as Ellis Marsalis Jr. and James Booker, Connick launched to New York to study at Hunter College and the Manhattan School of Music, where he signed with Columbia Records, releasing a self-titled instrumental LP in 1987, featuring works by the Gershwins, Thelonious Monk and Ron Carter, along with four of his own compositions.
The next year, he cut the album "20" – his age at the time – riffing on standards such as "Stars Fell on Alabama," "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" and "If I Only Had a Brain." Notably, this was his first recording with vocals, on six of 11 tracks.
When Harry Met Sally
His singing rose up front on his next disc, the double-platinum-selling soundtrack to Rob Reiner's comedy "When Harry Met Sally ..." showcasing his golden tones on classics such as "It Had to Be You," "Autumn in New York," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," winning Connick his first Grammy, for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance. Jazz-rock drummer Bobby Colomby had brought Connick to the attention of his pal Reiner, who was struck by how much Connick sounded like a young Frank Sinatra.
Widely seen videos featuring a glammed-up Connick helped spring him to superstardom. He quickly began appearing in front of the camera, acting in the 1990 war drama "Memphis Belle," leading to romantic comedies, thrillers and more, such as "Independence Day," "Hope Floats," "South Pacific" and "P.S. I Love You." He played Grace's husband on the ground-breaking sitcom "Will and Grace," hosted talk show "Harry," served as a judge and mentor on "American Idol," and guest-starred on shows from "Cheers" to "Sesame Street."
Not content with just the music, film and TV worlds conquered, he wrote the score for Susan Stroman's Broadway musical "Thou Shalt Not," earning Tony nominations, and starred in the 2002 revival of "The Pajama Game." Connick has won a pair of Emmys for TV specials, and all the while continues to compose and record.
He's sold more than 28 million albums worldwide, with 10 No. 1 jazz albums, more than any other U.S. artist, the top-sellers among them his 1993 "When My Heart Finds Christmas" and 2004's "Only You."
So how does he keep all those pins in the air?
"Compartmentalize," Connick said. "It goes into the way I live my life, too. The only thing that matters to me right now is talking to you.
"I think of that as a real gift, to be able to focus on the present. I give whatever I'm doing 100%. I think it's important to eliminate all distractions ... then go on to the next thing.
"When I go on tour, my only concern is to entertain those folks."
He was on a mini-tour, with his tribute to Cole Porter, when the pandemic hit. Connick cut "True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter" in October 2019, then performed the limited-edition Broadway multi-media show "Harry Connick Jr. — A Celebration of Cole Porter" in December.
"I was on the road, we were in the middle of a tour, and the whole world got shut down," he said, "so I focused on some different things."
Some of those different things include writing a new set of songs, while up in Connecticut with family, then playing all the instruments and layering all the vocals for "Alone With My Faith," released in March. In addition to Connick's new songs, there are renditions of staples such as "Amazing Grace," "The Old Rugged Cross" and "How Great Thou Art."
"I was at home, and I knew there was really no end in sight. ... It was a real test of faith, and I was doing a lot of reflecting, a lot of thinking about things," he said. "Therapeutic as the project was for me to record, I thought, well the songs were helping me get through this hard time, so maybe they could serve that way for others."
For such a wide-ranging artist, it's probably not surprising to learn that, at 53, he's accomplished at a lot more than just piano.
"These aren't garage-band instruments; they're trumpets and cellos and pedal steel guitars and acoustic drums. ... It's a fun challenge, definitely. It takes a while when you're adding 20 or 30 vocal parts. But that actually goes a lot quicker than you might think," Connick said.
"I'm better at some than others. I've been doing this a really long time."
Time to play
As the concert window began to brighten earlier this year, Connick talked to his manager and found a spot for a month of live dates, one of which Tuscaloosa was fortunate to book. The tour is titled, aptly for a return after more than a year off the road: "Time to Play."
At the time of this interview, he'd yet to rehearse with his band, but as they're all pros he's played with many years, Connick's not concerned about finding the groove.
"We should be able to jump right back in," he said. The show has been advertised as harking back to his New Orleans roots, but he said the set lists remain wide open.
"We'll be playing different tunes, some that I maybe haven't recorded," he said. "The shows are going to vary greatly, from night to night.
"We might play a few of the same songs, but I think it's important to create something unique for the people you're playing for that night."
"Being that a lot of the music we're playing is jazz, that lends itself very well to stretching out and improvising. I might start playing a tune that nobody else (on stage) knows, but they'll pick it right up."
Back to the compartmentalization: It's especially crucial, as a jazz player, to remain fully alive in the moment.
"I don't really have a regimen," he said.
"I just wake up and say 'What am I doing today?' "
That's not to say his manager, who Connick's been with for 35 years, doesn't keep him on a schedule. For instance, in October and November he'll be working on the show "Annie," on NBC Live, playing Daddy Warbucks – no, he's not certain yet whether he'll shave that wavy mane of hair, or wear a bald-head cap.
"She blocks time out so I can accomplish whatever I need to accomplish," he said. "She's always 10 steps ahead, on the day."
When asked what it's like to be so cool, Connick hesitated, apparently surprised, then laughed.
"You'd have to ask my wife that," he's said, referring to actor, director and former Victoria's Secret model Jill Goodacre Connick, mother to their three daughters. "She's the cooler of the two of us. If I could just imitate her, I'd be cool.
"People who know me know I'm not actually cool," he said.
Connick and his seven-piece band will play the entire evening show Friday, beginning at 8 p.m. Any tickets remaining, at www.ticketmaster.com, or the Amphitheater box office, sell for $125, $99.50, $69.50, $59.50, and $39.50, plus fees. For more, see www.tuscaloosaamphitheater.com