Do you remember when Harry Connick Jr was fun? I was an impressionable teenager when Connick came to the fore back in the early 1990s, and he was a young man who managed to make swing and big band music cool again, and made it fun. Anyone who has seen Swingin’ Out Live and The New York Big Band Concert would be hard-pushed not to have a good time watching Connick on stage having a ball. And the albums that came out during the period had wonderful invention in their arrangement, perhaps reaching their peak with Blue Light, Red Light.
Then everything went a little strange. The first Christmas album, When My Heart Finds Christmas, was good in parts but was marred by dark, heavy orchestrations of the ballads. Then came the two funk albums, of which She was a real blast, but Star Turtle was rather hit and miss and seemed to be stretching the concept too far. But at the end of the decade, Connick seemed to find himself again. Come By Me was a great return to the big band genre, with some wacky orchestrations to boot. 30 was easily the best of the Harry-at-the-piano series, and Songs I Heard saw Harry giving a batch of kids songs from films the New Orleans treatment: Music to party to, and Connick at his best.
Then it all went wrong. Well, not so much wrong as boring. Only You was OK for what it was. But the arrangements of these 50s and 60s pop songs were far too heavy and seemed to lack the life and vitality that was so instilled in Connick’s best music. And the voice itself had also got older, darker and deeper. It was almost as if Harry Connick had got middle-aged overnight. The DVD concert that accompanied that release showed more of the same. Gone was the spontaneous sense of fun that I had witnessed when I had seen Connick at the Royal Albert Hall a few years earlier, replaced with a more ballad-oriented set and little of the spark between Connick and his musicians. Even the wonderful There Is Always One More Time failed to come alight, despite the wonderful performance on 30. There were signs of life with the two “New Orleans” albums from 2007, but that was extinguished with Your Songs. I’m sure it’s a fine album if you’re in an elevator, but it was fatally flawed not because it was ballad-heavy, but because it was simply boring. The live album from 2011 did little to show that Connick was coming out of the doldrums.
Somehow, during the middle of the decade, Connick had become irrelevant as other young pretenders came along and seemingly stole his thunder. While Michael Buble started his recordings for a major label with dull retreads of old arrangements, he soon started to have arrangements that were undeniably his, culminating in the Christmas album from last year which has become an instant classic and contains some of the left-field style of arrangements that Connick used to produce. Meanwhile, Jamie Cullum was the next pianist-vocalist, and while he’s not as talented as Connick in either capacity, he has endless energy and invention, and is never afraid to transform a song in the least likely way. Meanwhile, there was also success for the likes of Peter Cincotti, Peter Grant and Hamel. Meanwhile, there was little sign of Connick regaining his form, despite the fact that he was far more prolific in the album department during this period than any of these young challengers.
Bearing all of this in mind, Smokey Mary, Connick’s latest effort is a pleasant surprise, returning to the funk style of the mid-1990s albums. There are problems here, not least the fact that the album is a mere 45 minutes, and two of the numbers are reissues of songs from Star Turtle, but the nine new songs are surprising in that, for the first time in years, Connick sounds alive. Considering how dark and sombre his vocals have been of late, I even wondered for a while if these were recorded ten or more years ago and left in the can only to be released now, but that isn’t the case. This is Connick sounding young and vibrant again, and for that it is most welcome.
The material isn’t quite as strong as on the first funk album, She. That said, this is an enjoyable upbeat album of originals (and devoid of the often-strange linking tracks of the earlier albums) that sees Connick’s songwriting coming to the fore once again, and his light, airy vocals are a sign that things are looking up for Connick fans. There are some standout tracks here, including the title track, Angola (at the farm), and the gospel-influenced S’pposed To Be. Allmusic’s review concludes that this is “colorful, shiny fun”, and this is a good summation. There’s not a great deal of depth here, but it is music that allows the listener to have a good time, and for Connick fans it’s been a long time coming.
There is still a rather scary reminder that Connick is now a middle-aged man. On opening the CD case for the first time, one is presented with possibly the worst picture of Connick ever to emerge (see below, but the uncropped image is a lot worse!). He is pictured on what is presumably the mardi gras float that the album is named after, but Connick really doesn’t come out of this well as he grins uneasily at the camera whilst wearing a glittery costume and standing against what appears to be metallic flowers. It’s as embarrassing as your Dad’s dancing at a wedding, and is a worrying sign that Connick is still likely to make some baffling artistic choices as he claws his way out of the doldrums.