Review: Harry Connick, Jr. achieves a personal best

Harry Connick Jr.

Harry Connick Jr. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times / June 28, 2013)

New Orleans has produced more than its share of great showmen, entertainers for whom almost any stage seems too small and any evening too brief.

Anyone who doubted that Harry Connick, Jr. belongs to this tradition and extends it into the 21st century surely was not out Saturday night at Symphony Center, where Connick offered an intermissionless show that stretched well past two hours and yet seemed to pass too quickly. Aside from the sheer stamina of this performance, Connick addressed so many musical styles so persuasively, while also unveiling several striking new songs, that one had to reassess earlier impressions of him.

Certainly he has come a long way since his first national tour, which brought him to the Chicago Theatre on Jan. 19, 1990. On that night, the 22-year-old performer showed an ample debt to singers such as Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong and pianists such as Count Basie, Thelonious Monk and James P. Johnson.

But Connick has evolved steadily through the decades, and in playing the second show of a two-night run at Symphony Center, the now 45-year-old musician conveyed maturity and depth. Add to this his already thorough conversance with musical forms nurtured in his hometown, and you had one of the most dynamic and satisfying performances of this season.

For those who identify Connick with the kinds of vintage songs he recorded for the soundtrack of the film "When Harry Met Sally…," which launched him to stardom in 1989, he fulfilled expectations. But though there was no mistaking the signature, slightly swooning phraseology he brought to "Without a Song" and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," his baritone sounded deeper, darker and more lustrous than ever before.

But that was just one slender facet of Connick's work. In several pieces steeped in gospel tradition, most notably "Jesus Is on the Main Line," Connick led his band in rambunctious performances inspired by the church but extended to an orchestral palette. Connick played organ here, his cascading glissandi and accelerating tempos true to the sanctified genre yet stylized for the concert hall.

Music of New Orleans stood at the center of much of this music-making, Connick evoking the city's distinctive funeral traditions in singing a devout "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." He then proceeded – as is the New Orleans custom – with a jubilant follow-up, in the form of a nearly frenetic "When the Saints Go Marching In," the band's screaming horns blasting the cliches out of the piece.

But some of the most meaningful work of this evening came from Connick's pen, via original songs from his new album "Every Man Should Know." Until now, Connick's songwriting has been the weakest part of his art, but the new tunes represent a higher level of craft than past efforts. The melodic elegance of the bossa nova-inspired "I Love Her," the expressive urgency of the idiosyncratic "Come See About Me," the sly and slinky flirtations of "One Fine Thing" and the disarming directness of the title cut pointed to a singer finding his voice as songwriter, no small achievement.

Any show as ambitious as this is bound to have its weaker moments, and these included Connick's unfortunate attempts to play trumpet and an apparently spontaneous but ultimately underwhelming duet with Chicago actress/singer Jessie Mueller in "All of Me" (Mueller starred opposite Connick in the 2011 Broadway production of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."

Ultimately, though, there was enough vibrant music in this evening – which included rousing solos from trombonist-vocalist Lucien Barbarin – to fill a couple of concerts.

Connick never sounded better.

Latin Jazz Fest

The seventh annual Chicago Latin Jazz Festival took an enormous leap forward over the weekend, stretching from one day to two and, better still, spotlighting major international artists.

The main event unfolded on Friday evening, when flutist-saxophonist Jane Bunnett – a longtime champion of Afro-Cuban music – led a trio featuring the accomplished Cuban pianist Hilario Duran and the legendary, 92-year-old Cuban conguero Candido Camero.

An overflow audience crowded the Humboldt Park Boathouse, a visually spectacular but acoustically challenged venue. The Edwin Sanchez Project preceded Bunnett and friends on stage and played with verve and authority in Afro-Caribbean idioms. But the sound system and acoustical properties of the Humboldt Park Boathouse reduced much of this music-making to a noisy din.

Bunnett's trio followed, and these smaller forces fared better, the sound adequate, but just barely. That said, Bunnett dispatched Cuban repertory with equal sensitivity to its classical and jazz influences, the exquisite detail of her flute solos as appealing as the virtuosity of her soprano saxophone work. Duran played dexterously, but his art was not well served by an electronic keyboard.

Percussionist Camero provided pulsing accompaniment throughout, his pervasively lyrical playing as sensitive to pitch as it was to rhythm. The evening included an extended Camero solo, the conguero chanting at one moment, producing flurries of notes with his fingertips the next.

Ultimately, though, this performance was about music, not pyrotechnics, and it spoke to the timelessness of this nonagenarian musician's art.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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