If you had to use one word to sum up Harry Connick Jr.'s performance at Heinz Hall Thursday night it would be "purejoy." OK, that's two words, but you get the picture. It was PURE JOY.
From the moment the curtain went up (old-school, love it), Mr. Connick and his 13-piece band put on a flawless show, starting with the opening number "With a Song in My Heart." It set the mood for an evening filled with everything from a mini gospel set to a mini master class of great jazz musicians born in Pittsburgh to a surprise appearance by accordionist Kevin Solecki, who breezily chalked up his last-minute appearance at Heinz Hall as the 82nd night in a row he had a gig to play.
Of course, lots of NOLA-style music permeated the night as band musicians took center stage, trading licks, laughing a lot and making everyone so happy that we were all invited to the party. But Mr. Connick isn't just about NOLA jazz, and he showed lots of variety during the night.
He introduced Jonathan DuBose Jr. as someone he "begged" to go out on the road with him. The gospel/blues guitarist is a virtuoso able to bring musical magic to whatever he plays. Mr. Connick sat down at the Hammond B-3 as Mr. DuBose led the way with "Jesus On the Mainline," a showstopper. Later on, Mr. DuBose joined in a huge improv section that included "This Little Light of Mine" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Mr. DuBose was later featured on the bossa nova-flavored "I Love Her" from Mr. Connick's new CD "Every Man Should Know."
The gospel segment was a perfect intro into "Love Wins," a song Mr. Connick penned for Ana Grace Marquez-Greene (a victim of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting), the daughter of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Greene, who played for years in Mr. Connick's band. It was haunting and celebratory all at once.
Mr. Connick, a superb student of his craft, did not miss the opportunity to pay tribute to one of the world's greatest jazz pianists, Pittsburgh-born Erroll Garner. He spent some time explaining the intricate percussive style that was Garner's hallmark, beating out the rhythms on the piano case. Mr. Connick then demonstrated it by playing Mr. Garner's iconic "Misty" in the same style, explaining that he was unable to master it until he beat his own piano in a fit of frustration and tripped upon it accidentally when he was just 19. At one point he said, "I could play a six-hour show for you. I just love this town, its rich musical history and this place," referring to Heinz Hall.
The new disc took center stage, and it sounds just as spectacular live. There is a lot of musical variation and every song stands up to Mr. Connick's high standards. The super swanky "One Fine Thing" had everyone swooning in rhythm, while "Come See About Me" just overflowed with the heartache of a broken man.
Mr. Connick brought out Mr. Solecki, explaining that his manager secured the accordionist earlier in the day to teach Mr. Connick how to play the instrument. "How hard can it be? The keys are sideways, just like a piano," Mr. Connick said as he put on the large, flashy accordion. The exchange was hilarious as Mr. Solecki, a Pittsburgh-based, Grammy-nominated virtuoso, demonstrated how those little buttons actually work. Mr. Solecki joined Mr. Connick on "Greatest Love Story," and as the accordionist left the stage, Mr. Connick remarked, "That dude is a bad mamma jamma!"
Harry Connick puts on a great show and employs some of the best musicians in the business. He spent a little time talking to young musicians in the audience about the importance of being prepared, saying that is what opens doors -- advice the great Liza Minnelli gave to his own daughter.
Mr. Connick started to wind down the two-hour set with another crowd-pleaser and one of his all-time favorite songs, "The Way You Look Tonight." The crowd brought him back for a lush encore of "Every Man Should Know," a poignant way to say goodbye.
As the curtain fell, the audience rose to its feet cheering. I'm sure the crowd would have been happy to stick around for that six-hour gig. I know I would have.
Rosa Colucci: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1661.