From a brash New Orleans teenager with a heavy, thumping piano style, Harry Connick Jr. has evolved over two decades into a multiple-threat entertainer. Besides playing the piano, he sings, he banters, he charms, he dances a little, he leads a solidly swinging big band, he even arranges and conducts. It was more than enough activity to carry an engaging, uninterrupted two-hour show Friday night — and his name recognition remained high enough to pack the Hollywood Bowl (Friday’s attendance was 16,583, a few hundred short of a sellout).
Connick knocks himself out to entertain an audience, but he does so with an easy, insouciant grace that conceals the effort behind the act. He can lay on the New Orleans charm like honey, bantering his way out of a blown lyric on “Save the Last Dance for Me” or sauntering out onto the walkway around the Pool Circle to josh with security guards and surprised members of the audience.
Underneath the crowd-pleasing, though, the guy clearly knows how to put together an act; the proof is in the supporting details. His songs were conventional yet undeniably well-crafted in a Basie-derived fashion, and the big band was obviously well drilled, delivering tunes with bite and pizzazz.
Connick realizes the importance of having a superb drummer aboard — and the man on the spot was the redoubtable Jeff “Tain” Watts, longtime cohort of the Marsalis dynasty, who generated a powerful swinging groove that lifted all ships.
The lighting effects were consistently eye-catching, and even the sound was mostly first-rate — and noticeably better than earlier in the new Bowl shell’s inaugural season.
Connick was careful to cater to the jazz fans in the crowd, too. In addition to his own piano solos — still in a stabbing manner but with the excesses trimmed back and pushed along nicely by the rhythm section — trumpeter Leroy Jones and trombonist Lucien Barbarin received plenty of worthwhile solo time.
Yet while you can’t help liking the guy and admiring his versatility, there is something about this act that does not quite connect on a deeper emotional level, and the root lies in the vocals. Maybe it’s not fair to compare the Connick effect with that of the immortal Sinatra, but he continues to set himself up for the comparison with his Sinatra-like vocal phrasing and timbre — and it remains a facsimile, nothing more. Connick is an entertainer, and a good one, but he’s not in the icon class.
Doug Wamble opened the show with a brief sampling of his lazy, bluesy strummed guitar and decent vocals.