Harry Connick Jr.: Smokey Mary

Following a prolonged retreat into the worlds of pop covers and Broadway, Harry Connick Jr. is-spiritually, musically and physically-back on home turf. The last time Connick paid album-length tribute to his birthplace was in 2007, with the side-by-side post-Katrina releases Oh, My Nola and its largely instrumental companion, Chanson du Vieux Carré.

This time he’s marking a far happier occasion with a set of nine originals laid down in two New Orleans studios, plus two additional tracks lifted from his 1996 concept album, Star Turtle. Connick’s brilliantly realized intent is to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Krewe of Orpheus musical parade, which he helped create, that winds along St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street on Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras. Smokey Mary (a.k.a. the Smoking Mary) is an annual parade highlight, a six-unit float shaped like a locomotive.

Working with his regular six-member band and a spate of hometown guests, including saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Bobby Campo, Connick sets a boisterous pace with the title track and just keeps the party rollin’. Highlights include the rollicking “Cuddina Done It”; the sweet, swaying “S’pposed to Be,” featuring vocalist Kim Burrell; the funky, high-steppin’ “The Preacher”; and the sly, sexy “Nola Girl,” a fine reminder that New Orleans’ musical gumbo is enriched with plenty of Caribbean spice.

Katrina isn’t forgotten, its force skillfully captured in the stealthy, pounding “Hurricane,” featuring Marsalis. Only at the end of this rowdy 45-minute fete does Connick pause for quieter contemplation, closing with Star Turtle‘s moving “City Beneath the Sea.” To paraphrase fellow New Orleanian Louis Armstrong (via Jerry Herman), it’s great to have Harry back where he belongs.