While singer/pianist Harry Connick Jr.'s opening performance at this year's Ottawa International Jazz Festival was entertaining in a lightweight kind of way, his two shows the following evening were the most revealing. On this world premiere, and two of only three live performances with his lifelong friend, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Connick debuted material from Occasion: Connick on Piano 2, an even greater departure from his more widely-accepted crooner image than his '03 Marsalis Music release, Other Hours: Connick on Piano 1.
Other Hours was a solid showcase for Connick as a pianist and composer in a group context, but Occasion puts him in the more inherently risky environment of the duo, where there's no safety net and both players are completely exposed. Recorded over three days earlier this year, it was originally intended to combine a handful of duet recordings with Marsaliswith whom Connick has played on occasion over the years, most recently on Marsalis' Romare Bearden Revealedwith a series of solo piano pieces. But the bond between the two players was so strong that Connick supplemented the pieces brought to the session with further writing done on the fly, and Marsalis ultimately contributed two pieces of his ownthe appropriately titled "Steve Lacy and the more traditionally-informed title track.
It's often said that a player's personality is reflected in their music, and when I had the opportunity to see Connick in performance with Marsalis, his levity and often dry humour were in clear evidence throughout. Refreshingly, Connick's roots aren't in the post-Evans school of musical thought; rather, he comes directly and equally from the idiosyncratically irreverent Thelonious Monk and the behind-the-beat stride work of Erroll Garner. While Connick is capable of elegance and delicacy, as he demonstrates on the poignant "I Like Love More, a touch of classical influence on "Valentine's Day, and even a certain degree of abstraction on the dark-hued "Chanson Du Vieux Carre, he's generally more disposed towards a weightier but never overbearing touch. You can almost hear his New Orleans drawl on the bluesy "Good to Be Home and the modernized ragtime of "Spot.
As in their live performance, the simpatico between Connick and Marsalis is palpable. Marsalis, always a versatile player, demonstrates a different side to his own roots on "Win and "Lose, which are two sides of the same coinsharing a theme but demonstrating just how far apart two takes on essentially the same piece can be. While Marsalis remains perhaps closer to the centre than in his own work, his ability to play tag team with Connick results in a surprising unpredictability throughout.
During the first Ottawa show, Connick bemoaned how he's always wanted to be the pianist in Branford's band. Occasion may not make a strong case for him in that context, but it certainly presents a picture of him as a far more diversely capable player than fans of his crooner materialand even his previous instrumental albumscould possibly imagine.
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Personnel: Harry Connick Jr. (piano); Branford Marsalis (tenor and soprano saxophones)