New Orleans’ homegrown musical culture, facing the fight of its life, lives large in Harry Connick Jr.’s simultaneously released albums, each offering a multiplicity of strains that collectively have helped make the Crescent City sound so distinctive. “Oh, My Nola,” the one centered on Connick’s crooner-quality vocals, likely will appeal to those listeners who warmed to last year’s sterling Elvis Costello-Allen Toussaint collaboration “The River in Reverse.” It’s liberally laced with earthy, funky New Orlean R&B and augmented with a muscular, oversized horn section playing Connick’s arrangements and pumping new life into such Toussaint gems as “Working in the Coal Mine” and Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” the latter an unofficial theme song for New Orleans’ recovery.
Connick also takes on other regional favorites, including a version of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” retro-fitted with a Big Easy groove, and Louis Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly,” its intro a showcase for the pianist’s rootsy trio work with bassist Neal Caine and drummer Arthur Latin.
The backbeat-punchy “All These People,” one of four Connick originals, is a poignant evocation of post-Katrina misery and the inexcusable, ultimately fatal delay in federal response: “There were all these people/Oh, just waiting there for someone/But nobody came/Nobody saw.” Heartfelt and evocative, too, is the title track, spiked with the playing of trumpeter Leon Brown, trombonist Troy Andrews, banjo player Bill Huntington and young pianist Jonathan Batiste. Melancholy and anger indeed seep into some of these tracks, but the prevailing mood is celebratory, a savory early valentine from a high-profile native son.
Connick’s big band, powered by the same rhythm section heard on “Oh, My Nola,” is featured on “Chanson du Vieux Carre.” Recorded four years ago, this set of creatively redesigned pieces associated with New Orleans sports arrangements that owe a thing or two or three to Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Professor Longhair, whose “rumba boogie” rhythms and idiosyncratic piano playing have influenced generations of NOLA musicians, is toasted with his “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” one of several opportunities for trombonist Lucien Barbarin and trumpeter Leroy Jones to strut. The leader’s still-impressive piano work is displayed on Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans,” Louis Armstrong’s “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” and elsewhere. And vocal turns — none by Connick — spice a few tunes, including Paul Barbarin’s “Bourbon Street Parade,” with Jones out front, and Connick’s “Luscious,” featuring Lucien Barbarin’s gruff singing and plunger-mute ‘bone declarations.
Consider the two discs a midwinter fix of warm New Orleans music, just enough of the good stuff to last — maybe — until this spring’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Connick will headline.
— Philip Booth