To hear Harry Connick Jr. tell it, he’s spent much of the last year rescuing Cole Porter from obscurity.
“Most people not only don’t know much about him, but don’t know who he was,” Connick Jr. explained not long into his 110-minute performance before a near-capacity audience at Winspear Opera House on Sunday night.
He then joked about the apparently widespread confusion between Porter and Nat King Cole (“Didn’t he sing the Christmas song?”) but returned to praise Porter again: “He was a master.”
The onstage banter was both celebratory and mildly self-serving; it’s a bit of a stretch to think Connick Jr. is almost single-handedly restoring Porter’s name to prominence. After all, the Grammy-winning composer and songwriter has authored dozens of well-known ditties — “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “It’s Delovely” or “Night and Day” — some of American music’s most sophisticated and sly standards.
Connick Jr., whose latest studio album, True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter, was the impetus for the True Love: An Intimate Performance tour bringing him to North Texas for his first concert in nearly seven years, never quite found the fizz inherent in Porter’s alluring catalog on Sunday night. “Intimate” implies a coziness that didn’t quite materialize in the room.
To be sure, the 52-year-old New Orleans multi-hyphenate — Grammy-winning singer, composer, actor, one-time American Idol judge and former daytime TV host — made his performance seem effortless, almost to the point of detachment, although he was quick to praise Texas.
“We are so lucky to be in this beautiful room with y’all,” Connick Jr. told the audience. “I have a soft spot in my heart for Texas — my wife is from Lubbock.”
Connick Jr. was joined by seven other musicians (drummer and Nacogdoches native Arthur Latin; bassist Neal Caine; organist Andrew Fisher; trumpeter Mark Braud; saxophonist Geoff Burke; trombonist Dion Tucker; and saxophonist Jerry Weldon), all of whom provided finely wrought textures throughout, playing with nuance and intensity, filling in behind Connick Jr.’s limber baritone like the gathering dusk.
Situated upon the stage ringed above and below by a simple set of lights, the band worked through a set pulling heavily from True Love, but taking care to touch on other aspects of Connick Jr.’s career, not least of which were his contributions to the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack.
Connick Jr.’s longest monologue was about this formative experience, which alternated between gratitude at being asked by Rob Reiner to contribute and telling his father that the Hollywood experience was so simple that “anybody could do this.”
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So it went, with Connick Jr., who was either situated at his Steinway or strolling across the stage, being slick and sure and smooth. After an entire life spent performing, there is no question that he has it down. But what was missing was any spark or sense of spontaneity — doubly ironic given his own roots in jazz.
There were moments of genuine beauty, as during “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Georgia on My Mind,” when Connick Jr. set aside the well-honed routine and burrowed into the songs at hand, transcending the gloss applied elsewhere and unearthing genuine emotion.
A few bayou-based detours briefly goosed the proceedings — “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” and the main set-closing “Bourbon Street Parade” were rowdy enough to make you think you’d stumbled into the French Quarter — but too often there was a strange disconnect. It was as though Harry Connick Jr. has become so comfortable with television and film’s glib surfaces that he’s lost sight of the value of being connected to the music and the room and the moment.
What might have been, to borrow a phrase from Cole Porter, “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings,” instead felt like an exceptionally well-performed shrug.