Harry Connick Jr. launches his tour next week at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. And after two nights in Fort Myers, the show moves on to St. Augustine, Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia and other eastern U.S. cities.
Just don’t ask Connick what he’s playing for any of those concerts on his New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration Tour.
The jazz singer/pianist has no idea. None.
He’ll figure that out once the stage lights come on.
“I’m one of those performers that kind of bases the performances off the people I’m playing in front of,” he says. “So it’s not like we have a specific setlist. “It’s really like a group effort with us and the audience, based on how the people are responding.
It’s really fun that way, because everybody gets a custom-made show just for them.”
Connick says he has hundreds of songs to choose from when the tour opens Friday and Saturday, June 1-2, in Fort Myers. But don’t worry: He’ll mostly play songs people know.
And, of course, they’ll be songs from New Orleans or songs inspired by New Orleans. The tour celebrates the 300th anniversary of The Big Easy’s birth.
“It’s supposed to be a New Orleans celebration,” Connick says. “And that means we’ll be playing all kinds of music from New Orleans: Traditional jazz and funk and all kinds of stuff. So we’re excited to do that.”
It’s music Connick knows well. He grew up in New Orleans and started performing there when he was 5 years old. Since then, he’s won three Grammy Awards and sold more than 28 million albums worldwide, including more No. 1 jazz albums than anyone in history (nine — plus another seven Top 20 jazz albums).
“New Orleans music, for me, that’s what I’ve known from the time I could think,” he says. “It’s what I was born around and raised with.
“There’s a wide variety of music that comes from New Orleans, and it’s an infinite source of inspiration for me. There’s so much history there. You could spend your whole life just studying the history of piano players from New Orleans, not to mention all the other instrumentalists and incredible styles that come from there.”
Still, Connick is initially stumped when asked about what makes New Orleans music so special. He says there’s a certain indefinable quality to the songs of Dr. John, Louis Armstrong, Allen Toussaint, Louis Prima, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Aaron Neville, The Meters and other New Orleans legends.
“It’s its own thing,” he says. “It’s just like food. It’s got its own flavor and its own rhythm and way of improvising.”
Connick just knows it when he hears it. Take New Orleans piano players — as soon as they start playing, you know exactly where they’re from.
“Dr. John calls it butterfly style,” Connick says. “There’s a lot of rolls and lot of embellishments. Where one person would just play one note, New Orleans piano players might play four or five notes before they GET to that note.
“And a lot of times, New Orleans piano players will play a chord that has six or seven notes with one hand, just to give it a certain kind of harmonic flavor.”
Sometimes Connick doesn’t quite realize the difficulty and complexity of those songs he’s known since birth. Even the songs he plays, himself.
“I’ve seen transcriptions of pieces I’ve played, without knowing it was a transcription of something I’ve played,” he says. “And I’ve said, ‘Holy cow, that looks IMPOSSIBLE!’ And they said, ‘That’s from one of your records!’”
For his tour, Connick says he’ll be traveling with about 11 musicians, including six horn players and a rhythm section. Plus the massive Steinway piano he’s been touring with for about 25 years.
“It’s just a great piano,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite pianos and it travels well. And it’s familiar to me.
“Every time I play, no matter where I am, I know I’m playing that same piano. So it’s always a nice comforting feeling.
Plus, of course, it SOUNDS good, too.
“Oh, it’s a monster piano!” he says and laughs. “It’s great!”
With so many No. 1 albums to his name — including his 2007 tribute to New Orleans, “Oh, My Nola” — Connick recognizes that he’s probably a gateway musician for many people. Those people hear his songs, and that leads them to discover other great jazz and New Orleans musicians, as well.
And this tour, of course, could inspire even more people to check out Dr. John, Louis Armstrong and others.
But Connick says he tries not to dwell on that much. If he thought about how every song might influence others, he’d never get anything done.
“I don’t spend any time thinking about the responsibility of it,” he says. “I just keep forging ahead and doing what I do.
“It’s scary to think you have that kind of impact on folks. But I don’t think about it, man. I just do the music that I love to do. And I just hope people like it, really.”
Learn more about Harry Connick and his tour at harryconnickjr.com. Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)
If you go
What: Harry Connick Jr. launches his new tour
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 1-2
Where: Barbara B Mann Performing Arts Hall, 13350 FSW Parkway, south Fort Myers
Tickets: $50-$150 (plus applicable taxes and fees, prices subject to change)
Info: 481-4849 or bbmannpah.com