Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #8

Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis

I have to begin with a confession: This wasn't my first choice. I had assigned this slot to a different album; I wrote the review, edited it, and uploaded it onto the server to be published. But the more I thought about it, I realized that first choice had been the safe choice; and while that was a great album too, I haven't pulled it from my shelf as often as I've reached for this. I'll publish the other review after Thanksgiving; but in the meantime, this CD belongs in the Top 10.

Ben Wolfe told me that Harry Connick, Jr. was the most talented musician he'd ever met. Coming from a guy who spent years touring with the Wynton Marsalis Septet, that's not a remark to be taken lightly; so when Marsalis Music started recording Connick playing something other than soundtracks, I gave him a chance. His first CD was good, but this is something else entirely; it's careful and it's thoughtful, and it almost qualifies as chamber jazz — from the last two musicians you'd expect to play that way.

If you'd asked the average jazz fan (pardon the stereotype) to call this album without hearing it, I suspect you would have gotten one of two predictions: that Connick would record a sappy, melodramatic album to seduce housewives; or he'd produce a bouncy program of pleasant if shallow swing. This record is a left turn; it's deep, deliberate music. There are no pyrotechnics, no instrumental gymnastics — and that shows considerable restraint from two men who are capable of both. It's a quiet recital; in fact, it reminds me very much of the Concord's series from Maybeck Recital Hall.

I've had a few opportunities to see experienced musicians play together for a first time. Connick says he's played with Marsalis occasionally since 1970, but what I hear is similar to that first-time chemistry. I saw Mick Goodrick and Russell Ferrante play together this past April, and I noticed two interweaving dynamics: both seemed conscious of "overplaying," yet each seemed to be exploring the other, like reaching out your hand in a dark room to find the wall. That's what I hear here: There isn't a single moment of reckless abandon, yet Connick and Marsalis are constantly challenging each other and playing off one another.

My first draft of this Top 10 list included fourteen titles. This was one of the four that I had cut — and I'm glad I caught the mistake. I keep banging this drum, but it's important: A list like this should highlight what was original, which records worth hearing weren't like anything else you could find. That's what elevated Occasion above my original choice — that, and the fact that as I keep listening to this record, I keep hearing new depth.

Occasion: Brown World; Valentine's Day; Occasion; Spot; I Like Love More; All Things; Win; Virgoid; Remember the Tarpon; Lose; Steve Lacy; Chanson du Vieux Carre; Good To Be Home.
Personnel: Harry Connick, Jr., piano; Branford Marsalis, saxophones.


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