Three years ago I interviewed Questlove, drummer and bandleader of hip-hop legends The Roots. At that point, The Roots had been the house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” for five years, and the intensity of the regular TV gig gave the well-established group something it never had before: tons of practice. “We’re way better musicians now,” Quest said, explaining how Roots’ concerts had become better than ever thanks to “The Tonight Show.” “It’s borderline that I feel like we’ve been fooling you guys for 16 years now. I almost want to send out an apology letter.”
Perhaps one year of TV duty on the daytime talk show “Harry” has similarly tuned up Harry Connick Jr.’s band, because his show at Encore Theater on Nov. 18 was one of the best overall music experiences I’ve had in Las Vegas this year — and that’s saying something as I’ve been to a lot of concerts and shows in 2017.
Connick — the award-winning New Orleans-born pianist and singer who moved to New York at age 18, found superstardom with his songs for the soundtrack to “When Harry Met Sally” and then got into acting and performing in movies, TV and on Broadway — led that same band from his TV show, plus a string section, through nearly two hours of some of his favorite music, rarely giving the capacity audience time to catch up. Sure, he opened with some poppier jazz selections and dipped into a seasonally appropriate “Sleigh Ride,” but he quickly zeroed in on the sounds that shaped and inspired his career—gospel, jazz, rhythm & blues—from his front-and-center seat at an asphalt Steinway.
If you only know Connick from the big or small screens, you can’t help but be blown away by his comprehensive talents, and the boundless energy and skill of his band was there to answer every call. He revisited the Jelly Roll Morton standard “Dr. Jazz” that he first recorded at age 11, this time breaking from piano to play a bit of trumpet in a duel with trombone great Lucien Barbarin. He sings in Spanish for “Bésame Mucho.” He plays another New Orleans classic, “Big Chief,” all by himself, each hand on a different keyboard and each foot on a different drum. He seduces the audience with “One Fine Thing,” a song he wrote for his wife, actress Jill Goodacre, and even does a little country guitar work on “(I Do) Like We Do.”
When it was all over, after Connick’s multi-instrument encore of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” I overheard a lady seated behind me describing how the show had caught her off-guard; she was expecting a lot more Sinatra-style stuff as Connick was once compared to the iconic crooner. I had similar thoughts, expecting more balladry than brassy horn blasts and bluesy guitar riffage. And no one expected a jazz funeral procession to make its way up and down the aisles of Encore Theater, with Connick beating a bass drum to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” This TV talk show host is full of surprises.
Harry Connick Jr. continues his engagement at Wynn Las Vegas with 8 p.m. shows on Dec. 1 and 2, and hopefully he’ll be back for more in 2018. Find information at wynnlasvegas.com.