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Connick brings New Orleans here

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the music of New Orleans has rightly been celebrated far and wide by musicians of various stripes.

However, no one has served as a more charming ambassador for the city's jubilant musical gumbo than Harry Connick Jr.

Connick captures the soul of the city's sound with easygoing charm and serious musical chops.

His recently released "Oh, My Nola" album offers an aural journey to the heart of the French Quarter, and on Friday, a full house inside Shea's Performing Arts Center took that journey with Connick and his stellar band.

Performing on a set conjuring the funky French chic of the city spinning ceiling fans, lampposts, a backdrop depicting a Quarter-style balcony -- Connick gave the audibly appreciative crowd most of "Nola's" tracks, which were written by or are associated with New Orleans musicians.

The show kicked off with a medley by the Connick Big Band -- three trumpets, three trombones, three saxophones, bass and drums -- which set the scene by heralding the Big Easy's musical stew -- part blues, part R&B, part funk, part jazz, part gospel, all soul.

Connick strolled onstage to vigorous applause, sat down at his beautiful Steinway piano, and launched into a Professor Longhair-styled bit of boogie-woogie improv, which eventually melted into a luxuriant "Come By Me."

"Working in the Coal Mine" signaled the arrival of the "Nola" tunes, and was given some serious juice by Connick's horn arrangement, which was inventive, surprising and invigorating.

"Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" followed, and again was introduced by some supple piano improv from Connick. Hank Williams' timeless "Jambalaya (on the Bayou)" was given a smoking funk strut, and segued smoothly into the Louis Armstrong staple, "Hello Dolly," with Connick in "frontman" role near the lip of the stage.

At various points throughout the more than 100-minute set, Connick moved between his front-of-stage Steinway and a Hammond organ and upright saloon-style piano elevated at the rear of the stage.

His organ playing was -- not surprisingly -- soulful and bluesy, and his take on the swanky blues nugget, "Junko Pardner," lit up the 88s on the upright.

Of course, as prodigiously talented as Connick is, he didn't make the evening's magic alone.

His band is astoundingly good, and able to draw from a vast catalog of music at a moment's notice.

Drummer Arthur Latin tore up the charts all evening long.

Sax players Jerry Weldon and Ned Goold brought swanky jazz solos to the party.

Guest trombonist Lucien Barbarin duetted with Connick on a stirring "St. James Infirmary Blues."

It all came together beautifully.

Connick is a masterful musician, consummate entertainer, and first-rate bandleader.

Friday, he brought New Orleans north and shared its charms with us.


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