Wednesday, January 11, 2006

DVD Review: Harry Connick Jr and Branford Marsalis: A Duo Occasion

In support of their new album Occasion: Connick on Piano, Vol. 2 Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis played a gig at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. Marsalis Music, in conjunction with Rounder records, has just released a pristine DVD release of that concert.

Both musicians fall under what I'll call the popular jazz genre. Connick is an accomplished jazz pianist. He grew up in New Orleans studying under such greats as James Booker and Ellis Marsalis. By age 18 he had moved to New York and headed his own jazz trio for Columbia records. Yet unlike many jazz musicians, he isn't afraid to delve into sheer pop territory like his Christmas records or the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack.

Branford Marsalis comes from a long line of jazz musicians. The Marsalis name is synonymous with great musical skill. Branford has lived up to his family name and is a well accomplished, Grammy award-winning musician. Yet he too has not shied away from the popular spectrum. For a number of years he was bandleader for the Tonight Show and he has performed with such popular rock bands as the Grateful Dead.

For this performance, the duo mostly leaves the popular music behind, sticking to a more strictly jazz format. However, Connick starts things off with his interpretation of the pop standard, "Chattanooga Choo Choo." A rather stilted, tonal version, I'm afraid.

I honestly expected to be a little disappointed with this performance. As a general rule I don't really care for duos or even trios. I like my music robust and full of interplay. I want to hear a multitude of instruments playing together to form a cohesive sound. Before I had even put this DVD into play I was already writing a review in my head stating that it needed some bass, more keyboards, and perhaps a cello or two.

After about the second song I had to rewrite my internal review for the two performers were filling out the music just fine on their own. The interplay was smooth, interesting, and fun. Nowhere did I miss the sounds of other instruments, just the saxophone and piano were ample enough.

Harry Connick, Jr was the leader here. Not only are the majority of songs his compositions but he is the only one miked for between song banter. He is a natural talker and showman whereas Marsalis tends to hide behind his instrument, letting his saxophone do the talking for him.

The music here is excellent. Both musicians are obviously having a great time performing together and have a long history of collaboration. They skillfully weave their instruments together, never trying to outdo or show each other up. Musically, it is easy enough to be background music for a dinner party and yet complicated enough to stand up to repeat listens with the lights turned off and the headsets on.

The concert was shot by award winning director Pierre Lamoureux in high definition video. It looks and sounds spectacular. The editing is smooth and exciting. Or as exciting as a jazz concert DVD can be.

Duo Occasion is a remarkable performance for fans of Harry Connick Jr., Branford Marsalis, jazz, and popular music alike.

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