Contrary to what the title of his latest release would lead listeners to believe, Harry Connick Jr. is actually 34 years old. Denoting the artist’s age when he recorded the material on his most recent effort, 30 is the fourth of such albums to be completed by the talented New Orleans native since his 1987 debut.
While the full reason for the four-year delay is not immediately forthcoming, a glance at Connick’s recent endeavors offers a certain amount of explanation. Since his thirtieth birthday in 1997, he has appeared in seven films (including Hope Floats and the made-for-TV production of South Pacific), contributed his voice talent to two more (The Iron Giant and My Dog Skip), released two albums (To See You and Come by Me), and composed, wrote and arranged the music for an original Broadway production (Thou Shalt Not). In other words, he’s been a little busy.
Along with 30, Connick has simultaneously released a collection of film and show tunes entitled Songs I Heard, which further begs the question of why he has even bothered to return to material that is over four years old when he obviously has more recent work to offer. For Connick, it appears that the reason is relative. “There’s a conceptual theme that runs through these recordings,” he states. “It captures a moment in time, it’s like a snapshot of where I’m coming from musically.”
For a young artist like Connick these sorts of gestures are important, even if they are somewhat academic. 30 is a quiet retreat to Connick’s earnest beginnings with such albums as his eponymous debut and his follow-up release, 20. While a few close friends make brief appearances — including Connick’s longtime bassist Ben Wolfe on “If I Were a Bell”, the legendary late Gospel singer Rev. James Moore on “There’s Always One More Time” and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on “I’ll Only Miss Her (When I Think of Her)” — the majority of the tracks on 30 feature Connick alone at the keys.
The result is indeed a snapshot of Connick’s abilities and sensibilities, presented in the same sort of muted and subtle tones of the album’s cover shot, a marked contrast to the brash bravado that he built his early reputation on. Once hailed as the heir apparent to Frank Sinatra’s legacy, Connick shows that he can still croon to swoon with cuts like “Don’t Like Goodbyes”. Other tracks like “I’m Walkin'” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” also recall those days but with a more mature mixture of simplicity and playful Southern charm. Connick’s characteristic drawl fit these tracks perfectly and play well against his strong stride-style piano work.
The pure instrumental tracks, however, are the true gems of this collection and best reflect how Connick has grown as a pianist. “Chattanooga Choo Choo” displays his grace and facility at the keyboard while “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree” moves with a tottering swagger that threatens to topple under the weight of Connick’s syncopated treatment. Yet it is in the construction of these tunes that Connick shows how his knack for quirky and engaging arranging has matured, a successful teaming of contemporary taste and vaudevillian humor.
In his search for new territory to explore Connick never strays too far from his strengths, which allows much of 30 to feel oddly familiar, though conservative enough at times to be easily mistaken for his earlier work. However this is more or less at the very core of Connick’s draw as an artist: music offered without any sense of historical irony and, at its simple best, comfortably charming.