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Harry Connick Jr.: Oh, My Nola

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Ever since Harry Connick Jr. swaggered into the spotlight some two decades ago, debate has raged among hard-line purists about the bespoken Sinatra wannabe’s jazz cred. Though rarely have the tousle-haired Louisianan’s musical chops, estimable since the get-go and constantly improved and refined ever since, been called into serious question, there has remained a near-constant hum, sometimes barely discernable, other times deafeningly loud, of disapproval as “Hollywood Harry” strayed from the jazz-paved straight and narrow to try his hand as a matinee idol, comic TV player (as Debra Messing’s surgeon husband on Will & Grace) and Broadway song-and-dance man (headlining a massively popular re-mount of The Pajama Game). Having been accused of everything from dilettantism to downright disloyalty to his jazz roots, Connick can now, with the simultaneous release of these like-minded albums, hoist a well-manicured middle finger to the cynical minority. This is Connick’s shining hour (or, more accurately, hours, since the pair of discs top 120 minutes).

Like the magnificent Nelson Riddle-ignited phoenix that rose from Sinatra’s boy crooner ashes in the early 1950s, these 28 tracks (half vocal on Nola, half instrumental on Vieux Carré) suggest a Connick musically reinvigorated, brimming with energy, insight and imagination. Though Vieux Carré was recorded more than two years before the beloved hometown that Connick has worked so tirelessly to rebuild was racked and ruined by Hurricane Katrina and Nola was created nearly a year after the devastation, the intent of both is to pay multi-shaded homage to the indomitable spirit, musical and otherwise, of New Orleans. Embracing the myriad of ingredients that contribute to the Big Easy’s inimitably rich musical gumbo, including jazz, blues, country, funk and big band, Nola’s nods extend from the personal-a sweet, mellow “Lazy Bones” for Connick’s mom and a mid-tempo “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” (arguably the album’s best demonstration of Connick’s impressive vocal maturity) for his uncle Ray-to the idolatrous-a sly, sexy “Hello, Dolly” for Louis Armstrong, a blistering “Elijah Rock” for gospel giant Raymond Myles, and a superbly funkified “Working in the Coal Mine” for Lee Dorsey. Props, too, to James Brooker (“Let Them Talk,” refitted with a grandly gentle, Ray Charles-esque arrangement) and Allen Toussaint (“Yes We Can Can”). But Connick’s fresh magic shines just as bright in the four originals included here, particularly the heartbreaking “All These People” in which he teams with gospel singer Kim Burrell to reflect on the human suffering he witnessed first hand.

The slightly grittier-though not an ounce less honorific-Vieux Carré is intended as the third “Connick on Piano” disc for pal Branford Marsalis’ label. But calling it a “piano” album is rather like referring to Angelina Jolie as a suburban wife and mother. Superlative as Connick’s touch, ranging from whisper-soft to uninhibitedly muscular, is throughout, this is, first and foremost, a glorious exercise in big-band vigor. The spectrum is phenomenal. There’s the lush beauty of Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans,” a shadowy paean that seems to concurrently moan with pleasure and woe. There’s a sultry reading of Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” that’s all satin hips and silk stockings. There’s a honey-lined, horn-fueled “Panama” that recalls Al Hirt. There’s a wall-shaking “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” that brims with Billy May effervescence, and a wailing “Bourbon Street Parade” constructed of pure joy. Brilliant as such tracks may be, all are outpaced by Connick’s own “Ash Wednesday,” overflowing with slightly sinister, film noir-ish urgency that suggests Duke Ellington filtered through Elvis Costello. Backtracking to Nola, at various points during the title track, Connick notes how immensely proud Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson would be of their native city’s survivalist smarts. I’m guessing those two Crescent City icons would be equally proud of Harry’s twin tributes.