Lenox — Harry Connick Jr.’s band needed a few seconds to reach critical mass in their first number at Tanglewood on the evening of June 23. Then they exploded. Which is to say, they brought down the house before anyone knew what had hit them. What had hit them was the Mardi Gras spirit of New Orleans in all its over-the-top, gonzo glory. The energy level was so high, you would have thought they were giving an encore at the world’s last Superbowl show. Seeing Connick on television does little to prepare you for the onslaught of sound and zany exuberance that characterizes his band’s concert performances.
For example: Only the most extreme hyperbole could begin to describe Lucien Barbarin’s ferocious trombone playing during the opening — it was positively alarming. If you didn’t know his intentions, you might have run for cover. Trombonists rarely play so loud or so fast, especially on the sort of blues licks he blasted into the crowd as he strode, wide-eyed and fuming, from one side of the stage to the other. Ask anyone who was there.
From the get-go, drummer Arthur Latin II seemed to be channeling big-band legend Buddy Rich, including the old man’s trademark Cheshire-Cat grin. (Now it’s Arthur’s Latin’s trademark Cheshire-Cat grin.) This extraordinary man puts on a dazzling show that would hold its own even if everyone else left the stage. (But that’s also true of others in the band.) Mr. Latin has joy and vitality to spare, not to mention incredible chops.
Connick’s show was billed as a “New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration.” The fact is, though, that all of Connick’s music has been shaped by his boyhood years in New Orleans, where he began performing as a pianist and vocalist at the age of 5, and quite a bit of his music is suitable for celebratory occasions.
Connick is a musical Midas: It seems everything he touches, plays or sings has a way of turning to gold. As a vocalist he’s a notch above Frank Sinatra in terms of sheer musical skill (although he has obviously learned a few things about phrasing from Frank). He studied piano one summer at Boston University Tanglewood Institute but ran into a bit of trouble with one instructor there who objected to Connick’s interest in playing “the devil’s music.” Which raises one critically important question: Can Harry Connick Jr. play truly authentic New Orleans piano like Dr. John or Professor Longhair?
Yes. In fact, Connick has mastered a number of different flavors of genuine New Orleans piano, and he likes to show everyone how he does it: First the left hand, then the right, like an illusionist revealing his secret tricks. He says it’s simply what musicians do in New Orleans — the old-timers mentor local youngsters, often from the time they are barely out of kindergarten. It’s a long tradition that he acknowledges was crucial to his own musical development. Connick treasures everything he learned from the mentors of his youth, and now, a relative old-timer himself, he has joined their ranks and wants to pay it forward by offering his musical expertise to others, starting with his own concert audiences.
Harry Connick Jr. is an easy person to be around, and he clearly enjoys your company. He asks if you’d mind him departing momentarily from the New Orleans theme to sing a song he wrote for his wife. He wants you to enjoy yourself at his concerts, but he’ll tease you if he sees you leaving the auditorium early. “I thought we were a team!” he joked on Saturday night when he saw folks leaving the Tanglewood grounds just prior to his last number. This is a highly unusual tactic for artists performing at Tanglewood, and that’s what made it so extremely funny. The crowd roared.
Toward the end of his set, Connick sang “What a Wonderful World,” the song made famous by his all-time idol, Louis Armstrong (whom Connick imitated convincingly at a tender age). A cynic might question whether any millionaire celebrity can possibly understand that the world is a helluva lot less than wonderful for quite a lot of folks. He understands, and that’s why he does what he does. (He certainly doesn’t need the money.) Connick is doing his part to make the world a little bit more wonderful for all who are open to experiencing the joy of great music. And he gets the job done every time he takes the stage.
If you can’t go to New Orleans in person to experience the Mardi Gras, a Harry Connick Jr. show will get you so close you can smell the gumbo.