By Chacko Vadaketh
“My daughter will only wear local Malaysian clothes, calls me ‘Bapa’ and wants to move here!” With that the tall, handsome Harry Connick, Jr. had everyone at the press conference in the palm of his hand. He certainly made an impression, arriving on time, looking comfortable and relaxed in a well worn leather jacket, hair a little tousled, gushing at how wonderful Malaysia was, and later towering amiably over local journalists as they posed for photographs with him.
All this wide eyed squeaky clean niceness seemed a bit too good to be true, but later he repeated it during his performance (Feb 3, 2004, Dewan Filharmonik Petronas): “What an undiscovered jewel Malaysia is, I must tell everyone back home… All these people living together and believing different things… the shops are just amazing… I thought New York had nice shops… people here are so beautiful…” No, he is not being paid by our TDC, he is really a nice guy. And he seemed to be genuinely excited, along with his eight-year-old daughter, with what he saw here.
For his performance, Harry Connick, Jr. had brushed his hair and put on a black suit. As soon as Their Majesties had taken their seats he made an understated entrance, walking onto the starkly simple stage, singing ‘More Than The Greatest Love…’ With three Grammy awards, and the Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, you would have expected something astounding. But the voice was a bit of a let down – pleasant enough but a touch nasal and certainly not something that made you sit up. But it was a very classy set up: the MPO in their “smart casuals” of black trousers and shirts, forming a crescent around his grand piano, drummer and double bassist. His preppy good looks and obvious charm completed the very pretty minimalist picture.
And so the show proceeded, showcasing his various talents. First and foremost is his skill as an amazing solo pianist – at one point beating out rhythms on the body of the piano and tapping on the floor with his ever dancing feet while playing on the keyboard. As a vocalist, his voice did warm up and was rich and mellow by the time he sang a swing style ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. Bantering artlessly with the audience, he was a smooth compere, addressing witticisms to everyone from the Agung up in the Royal Circle to a sleepy little eight year-old in the front row.
As a band leader, he inspired show-stealing razzamatazz from his eight piece band in ‘Bourboun St. Parade’. The song arranger in him managed to transform an old classic like ‘On The Street Where You Live’ into something refreshingly new and yet recognisable. And not forgetting too his talents as composer and lyricist. It was astounding how effortlessly he moved from one role to the other without missing a beat.
A true master of his craft, Harry also let everyone have their moment on stage – one of his band members took over from him and with his huge black voice, sang a fantastic finale to ‘Basing St. Blues’. The MPO received just praise from Harry, who declared them the best orchestra he had performed with on this tour: “Better than any of them in Australia”.
The audience were enraptured. Save for the annoying few who started walking out during his last few songs – he actually stopped in mid song and said goodbye to a couple of them! For his first encore, he had his band come out and do ‘If You Go To New Orleans’. And they went wild, with Harry leaping up from his piano stool to dance amongst his band. This brought the house down. He dedicated his second and final encore ‘It Had To Be You’ to the Raja Permaisuri. And when it was over, despite the house lights coming on, the audience just sat there and clapped till he came out and took an extra bow.
As we walked out, a friend commented, “Why are Malaysians so stingy with their standing ovations?”
I thought it was a wonderful, slick, charming show. But for tonight’s performance, Harry Connick, Jr. lacked the je ne sais quoi that would have justified the audience leaping up to their feet, which I have seen them do, at least twice at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. Once for opera diva Sumi Jo and another time for violinist Kurt Nikkanen. Harry’s voice never quite astounded and the overall effect of his persona was a touch too wholesome and blandly charming. And so I thought the audience was a discerning one: long thunderous applause, yes, standing ovation, no.
I left KLCC wishing, “Oh for somewhere to go to for some more live jazz.” Preferably in a bar oozing with character and fun people. Our Dewan Filharmonik Petronas is beautiful and acoustically splendid, but not quite the ideal place to really get into some hot jazz. And sadly, on a Thursday night it was impossible to find that in KL.
If you do want a fix of jazz locally, you will have to wait for the weekend. Alexis at Great Eastern Mall on Jalan Ampang at the Jelatek junction, has an ever changing programme of good jazz bands on Fridays and Saturdays with nice food and nice ambience with easy street side parking. The spanking new Bangkok Jazz in Chulan Square at the junction of Raja Chulan and Bukit Bintang also has jazz on the same days in a very cosy, elegant setting, with Thai Tapas to munch on. Sugar, in The Crowne Plaza Mutiara, where KL Hilton used to be, has the Greg Lyons quintet early in the week on Tuesday nights.
And further out in the valley, Avanti at Sunway Lagoon has live jazz on Friday nights. The Piano Bar in the ‘restaurant in a historic home’ that is 1919 on Jalan Pudu Lama has themed shows every Saturday celebrating Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald and the likes with plenty of parking. Yokos opposite Hemingways on Changkat Bukit Bintang has a piano bar too I hear, where you can catch Japanese musicians jamming if you are lucky. But KL still lacks a home for superb live jazz and other music in a charismatic relaxed setting. Evelyn Hii, when are you going to reopen No Black Tie?
Chacko Vadaketh is an actor, presenter and now opera producer working both here and across the causeway in Singapore, where he recently finished playing Othello on TV and narrating for the Indian arts festival at the Esplanade.
First Published: 08.02.2005 on Kakiseni