Saturday, February 23, 2013

He's Not Sinatra And On Oh, My Nola, Harry Connick Jr. Doesn't Try To Be!

The Good: Good arrangements, Good voice, Some decent arrangements
The Bad: A few lyrics, Songs all very similar in style
The Basics: Harry Connick Jr. effectively takes established songs, mixes them with his own original pieces and sells an album to a person not usually inclined toward swing and jazz vocals.

One of my pet peeves with artists who fall into the "vocal" range has often been that the artists (and performers) there often are trading on a single virtue; their voice. Vocal performers are the special effects movies of music. Most vocal artists simply pick up from a cannon of traditional songs, recognizable favorites and/or Sinatra classics. Most of the vocal performers I find most insipid are the ones who simply try to sound like Frank Sinatra. This might seem odd coming from someone who enjoyed James Darren's This One's From The Heart (reviewed here!), but this is my general feeling on vocal performers. Enter Harry Connick Jr., vocal artist. On his album Oh, My Nola, Connick is not trying to recreate the sound of Frank Sinatra and that's the real reason the album succeeds at being something new, different and genuine.

With seventeen tracks, clocking in at over seventy and a half minutes, Oh, My Nola is a tribute to New Orleans in style and song selection. Connick has a great description in the liner notes about why he chose or arranged each track (save the bonus "Take Her To The Mardi Gras") as it appears and the liner notes become a decent introduction for the listener to Connick's thoughts and creative process. Harry Connick Jr. illustrates himself as a genuine artist on this album by performing the tracks as the primary vocalist, playing piano and organ on the album and arranging, orchestrating and conducting the songs on the disc. It's an ambitious amount of creative control and the result is a distinct vocal album that makes many familiar songs sound fresh and new. As well, Connick wrote four original tracks that appear on Oh, My Nola.

I'll stick with that subject for a moment. Connick as writer of lyrics and music is enough to make one wonder if he's a time traveler. Sure, he grew up in New Orleans, and this entire album is a tribute to the musical diversity of that city, but that does not mean that his emulation would necessarily be successful. He is, though. The four tracks that he wrote (he may well have written "Take Her To The Mardi Gras" as well - I've no documentation on that track, which is why I'll neglect it the rest of this review) blend seamlessly in with the established tracks. Connick captures the musical complexity of traditional songs like "Elijah Rock" and "Lazy Bones" in his tribute track Oh, My Nola But lyrically, Connick is genius, on tracks like "We Make A Lot Of Love" and "All These People," he writes with the same level of diction and style as the authors of such recognizable favorites as "Working In The Coal Mine" and "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?"

For those unfamiliar with Harry Connick Jr., vocally he is a baritone with a classic sense of jazz and swing that permeates his vocal styles. He stay safely within his range and register on Oh, My Nola and for those unfamiliar with the vocal jazz style, it often involves abrupt starts and stops. Connick's arrangement and performance of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" brilliantly inserts rests in untraditional places, making the song his own for this recording. Similarly, in "Sheik of Araby" and "Lazy Bones," Connick's vocal style lends to a very different feeling and rhythm and that works out well for this recording.

In short, despite having some standards like "Something You Got" and "Yes We Can" that might be familiar to those who are into vocal jazz performers, Oh, My Nola, reinterprets them with Connick's style and feeling for how they are performed in New Orleans. Some of them are taken even further to simply reinvent the songs. So for example, the classic "Working In The Coal Mine" (you know the song, "Working in a coal mine / Going down down down . . .), numerous percussion tracks are added that change it from a song about trudging off to death in the mines to an enthusiastic chant about breaking rocks. That's reinvention.

On "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?," Connick sings the song from a male perspective (traditionally it is sung from a woman's point of view) and it works. To be honest, I'm not a big swing fan and I've never been to New Orleans, so while I've heard many of these tracks performed before by other artists, I've heard them move by listening to Oh, My Nola over and over again. These arrangements swing, they rock and they stand on their own merits quite successfully.

For those unfamiliar with the general style, like a lot of swing, jazz and general vocal style artists or performers, Connick's style is driven by voice, backed immediately by his piano. On Oh, My Nola, he is supported by drums, saxophones (there are three different types utilized on this album), multiple trumpets, trombones, tubas and a guitar. The sound is much more diverse than those who listen to simply rock and roll or pop-rock might be accustomed to, but the sound is exactly what one would expect from swing, which is usually accompanied by a rich, orchestral sound.

Generally, I've not been a huge fan of this genre, but this particular Harry Connick Jr. album stands out. The thought he put into the arrangements overcomes some of the simple rhymes on some of the traces. I like the homogenous theme of performing music through the lens of New Orleans and the album has a quality to it that comes through even to a layperson. In short, this is a good, non-threatening vocal jazz/swing album for those of us who are not traditionally captivated by that style.

What put me over the edge was hearing the arrangements of two of the most recognizable songs ("Working In The Coal Mine" and "Sheik Of Araby") next to more traditional arrangements. Connick's versions are audacious. The simple level of musical diversity he plays with in terms of instrumentals illustrates his ability and . . . honestly, his vocals impressed me. Connick has a voice that is pretty wonderful and never bland. Sure, it makes me smile to hear the rather white Harry Connick Jr. singing how he's the Sheik of Araby, but he sells it.

I actually like his original song, a tribute to New Orleans Oh, My Nola best and the weak link is "Careless Love."

For other strong male vocalists, please visit my reviews of:
Aladdin Sane - David Bowie
Real Gone - Tom Waits
Working On A Dream - Bruce Springsteen


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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