Harry Connick, Jr. (Columbia)
Harry Connick, Jr., is an accomplished singer, arranger, musician, and composer. But equally important to his success, it would seem, is his talent as a stage performer. His shows offer more than music. More than a guy sitting at the piano and singing.
On this month's PBS Great Performances broadcast of the concerts for which this CD is the partial soundtrack, he shimmies and shakes as he demonstrates a New Orleans-style walk; he builds an easy rapport with the audience -- whom he most often addresses as "folks" -- and is generally an extremely affable presence.
So ... how does the disc stack up on its own, given that much of Connick's appeal comes from his style and energy as a stage performer -- especially when his band is red hot, as in this case, and the live versions of the New Orleans-style tunes could generate enough electricity to power the marquee of the Neil Simon Theatre, where the shows were recorded?
Fairly well, actually. It contains 15 tracks and runs a generous 76 minutes, though several songs from the TV broadcast are missing. Much of the enthusiasm, the buzz of the show comes across, and how could it not, when Connick is so at home on standards and his own compositions in a similar vein, from swing to ballads and boogie-woogie?
The final six tracks move, musically speaking, to Louisiana as the tempo and vibe of the disc change. The pace increases, the band starts to break loose, and Connick doffs his coat and crooner persona to emcee the party.
All this certainly can be appreciated on disc, though the vibrant performances that match the tenor of the music do add to the enjoyment. Just as well, then, that "In Concert On Broadway" is available in several formats, including DVD and DVD/CD.
-- RICHARD PATON
Kenny Rogers (Cracker Barrel)
With a dozen countrified gospel numbers on his new release, Kenny Rogers becomes the first artist to have two albums among Cracker Barrel Old Country Store's exclusive music offerings. The restaurant chain has become a force in the music industry, putting its latest album near the cash registers and the 25 others in a nearby kiosk, making them hard to miss for diners paying their check or waiting for a table.
The songs here are billed as the "inspirational, spiritual classics that Rogers loved through his childhood." Without exception, they are familiar tunes, warm and comforting, and listeners might find themselves singing along with Rogers on many of the tracks. He comes by this concept album honestly, previously notching 27 No. 1 hits on the Contemporary Christian Radio charts.
The musicianship throughout is impeccable, with sterling instrumental accompaniment and vocal backups. Rogers' distinctive voice is mostly intact and more than capable, despite the barely perceptible effects of age on range and note-holding. Each arrangement on these gospel gems puts the lyrics and vocals out front, with dramatic and sometimes soaring musical emphasis done with restraint.
-- KEN ROSENBAUM
Marcia Ball (Alligator Records)
Sunny, saucy Marcia Ball has drawn legions of fans over the years sitting cross-legged behind a keyboard, setting her band's steady rhythmic pace with the metronome-like movement of her upper foot.
It's with that same consistency that she keeps putting out great albums, like "Roadside Attractions," scheduled for release Tuesday.
Forget that Ball, who turns 62 this year, is a multiple Grammy nominee who has won almost every major blues piano award and was inducted into the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame in 2010. This is an album that suggests she is unspoiled by her success, something that goes beyond the bayou swamp boogie sound associated with her.
"Roadside Attractions" has that little extra something sweet and sassy, an album of a dozen songs Ball wrote or co-wrote herself from 40-some years of studying characters out on the road.
Ball revisits familiar themes. But even now -- on her 15th solo album -- she sounds as fresh and alive as she did years ago, perhaps just a little more seasoned and with richer tales to tell.
"Roadside Attractions" is worthy of being included in any conversation about her best.
-- TOM HENRY