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English: Harry Connick, Jr. at the New Orleans...

I just saved 250 bucks. Maybe more. Definitely more, if you figure in that I got paid to sit closer than the most expensive seats ($250 a pop) to that stupendous talent named Joseph Harry Fowler Connick, Jr., aka Harry Connick Jr.

I got a call in the late afternoon yesterday asking if I would be a last-minute replacement in the horn section of the Cedar Rapids Symphony a couple hours hence. I leapt at the chance. This was no ordinary concert.

The occasion was the gala (re)opening of the Paramount Theater, which had finally been rebuilt (thank you FEMA!) after the devastating floods of 2008 put the entire downtown under ten (or more) feet of water. The old theater was indeed grand:

– a superb example of “a 1920’s movie/vaudeville palace”.

But the new hall just takes your breath away – clearly every inch from top to bottom has been redone. You just have to think: this has to be the most stunning hall west of the Mississippi.

The work it took to renovate boggles minds. Imagine the Sistine Chapel-like scaffolding it took to apply detail to that oh-so-high ceiling…

They must have issued parachutes to the workers, just in case. (Read a detailed account of the reopening and gala concert with a lot more photos here.)

The 1600-seat sparkling new/old theater was ready for re-occupation. This gala concert was sold out to the last seat.

Just as amazing as the hall are what the audience can’t see: the facilities offstage. As Harry Connick said (paraphrasing): very often – especially in old theaters – the hall is wonderful and the dressing rooms and offstage areas are terrible. Not here, not now. He said that these are some of the best facilities he’s seen, and I don’t think he was just being nice (even considering what he said in the course of the show: “My father told me two things: Be on time. And be nice to people.”).

Back to HCJ. I have always liked Harry Connick (forgive me if I leave off the Jr for the rest of the post), first of all, because I’ve always liked the great crooners, especially Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and Tony Bennett, among others. I’m knocked out by the effortless jazz phrasing, expression, and musicianship (see my earlier post on Steve Lippia). HC sounds to me like a young Sinatra in vocal quality, but he (HC) has a such list of talents that it almost defies common sense. He’s not just a jazz singer like the above-mentioned. He’s also a terrific jazz pianist, joining a smaller circle of such talents, like Nat King Cole, Shirley Horn, Diana Krall, and… help me out here, there must be more. What wowed me last night about his piano playing was his choices. Most of the time, he chose to play very simply – sometimes just one note repeated rhythmically, and/or very sparsely, like Miles, like Basie. But every once in a while he would let his fingers off their leash and thrill and chill with an intricate sparkling shower of notes. The man was listening – really listening – which is what the best improvisation is all about. He played simply at those times not because that was all he could do – it was what he chose to do – just picking the best thing he decided he could add in the moment. Single line, comping with chords, solo riffs, chord melody, it was all the same. His native language – pouring like honey/vinegar just enough, effortlessly, joyfully, just at the right time, perfect – but not in the toxic sense of glossy CD/factory perfection that classical music (and other fields) sometimes substitutes for heart and expression – but perfect in the sense of rightness of choice for the moment, like having a gourmet chef’s (sixth?) sense of exactly how big a pinch of salt has to be to be just right for the dish – not too much, not too little. Art. HCJ was absolutely stunning in this way. I could have listened to his playing until I fell off the chair from thirst and hunger, having not noticed that there was anything else in the universe to attend to but to listen. And that’s just the piano playing. The same could be said for his vocals.

But wait, there’s more. Near the end, he picked up the trumpet. Yes, the trumpet. And traded fours and more with his ace lead trombonist (didn’t catch the name). He played and underplayed the trumpet the same way as he did the piano. It was all there. No sign that he ever played any other instrument but trumpet. He didn’t do screamy high lead stuff (his band – did I mention that the orchestra shared the stage with his band? – had guys to do that); just tasty solo stuff in the usual jazz solo mid range. How is this possible?

And there’s more. For the grand finale (the two hours went by in a blink), the band moved to center stage and cut loose with a wild and utterly exhilarating New Orleans jazz blow-out – with HCJ on – wait for it – bass drum. With both hands. Right hand knocking out interesting rhythms with the bass drum beater, the left hand tack tack tacking on the top of the drum with, um, a bent wire coat hanger (at least that’s what it looked like from here). The audience leaped to their feet as one and screamed approval as if they had rehearsed it. Chants of “we love you Harry” punctuated everything.

A word about stage presence: wow. He was utterly at home on stage. No wonder, since he has been performing (at the age of 45) for 35 years already (he made his first recordings when he was 10). I’m sure he recycled patter that he has used in shows for a long time, but it didn’t seem that way. It was like talking to a neighbor over the fence. His talk was finely customized for Cedar Rapids. He talked about the flood (being from New Orleans, he is no stranger to floods) and recovery, about the hall, about people he’d met – today – the first and only rehearsal was earlier in the day and he spoke with ease and familiarity about people he’d only just met. Although I missed at least half the funny bits (the speakers were all aimed the other way), he made us all laugh with stories, not just canned jokes, about his life, stuff that had happened to him. You could see how he also has another career as an actor. If you only saw him on Will & Grace, you’d never suspect that he sings, plays all those instruments superbly, and did I mention that he did all the arrangements and orchestrations for the musical numbers of the show (my only complaint – he needs to write more (French) horn parts. Those big numbers at the end  were a joy to listen to, but no horn parts – man, I so wanted to join in and get in on the fun). What an amazing mulit-talent this guy is. No wonder he has earned Grammy and Emmy awards, plus Tony nominations. I hereby award him a Whammy, my brand new award for the fabulous and delightful musical punch that his show delivers. That kind of supernatural musicianship will resonate in many hearts for a long time to come. Makes you kind of wish that Congress were some degree of musician, rather than all lawyers and businessmen, but that’s another topic for another day, why spoil this one.

PS: The show also brought back a recurring thought: the power of lighting. Lighting enhances performances, underscores moods, atmospheres, more effectively conveys the intentions of the composer and/or performers. Why do classical concerts and recitals all have the same lighting? Bright white light is very nice, for, say, a fanfare, but for Rite of Spring or Till Eulenspiegel or Symphonie Fantastique or Mahler 1? Can you imagine theater or dance without lighting design? Harry Connick’s lighting was mostly simple (as a traveling show has to be), but very effective. There was the spotlight on him. But they used different lighting behind him, different intensities, different colors to change moods. Another effect: most of the time they used varying amounts of “stage fog”, which 1) simulates the atmosphere of a nightclub of yore without the carcinogenic collateral damage of the original and 2) enhances the lighting effect by making colored light visible as it hits the clouds of fog (which are constantly slowly changing). There is a lot the classical world could learn from jazz (and other musics) if we could just stretch the paradigm, even a bit (and not just on pops concerts). Another topic, another day…

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