You can practically hear the voice of that little man — not the one inside the artist’s head, but the one at the record company. ”You’re talented,” he oozes. ”But imagine how big you could be if you dropped that jazz stuff and gave the kids what they really like.”
Then and there, the decision is made to come out of that jazz-bo cloud and get in touch with the people — the millions of people who spend millions of dollars on million-selling records, that is. It happens to the best of them: Louis Armstrong recorded a country album, and Ella Fitzgerald worked with fluffmeister Richard Perry (Ringo Starr, Carly Simon). Now two of the highest-profile artists associated with jazz today — Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis — have succumbed to that same temptation. Packing up his jazz ambitions, Connick has dropped his big band for a new electric group, Funky Dunky, on She, an album of New Orleans-style pop. Meanwhile, Marsalis, shelving his rigorous adherence to bebop purity, has turned to hip-hop with Buckshot LeFonque.
Evidently, the New Orleans-bred Connick has long been hiding a personal affection for the buoyantly infectious sound of jazzy Delta pop artists like the Meters, Dr. John, and Allen Toussaint, each of whom made a momentary splash in the mainstream during the ’70s. Hometown pride is swell, and it’s encouraging to see the pianist-songwriter progress out of the swing sound of the ’40s and early ’50s; at this rate, he could reach the ’90s by the year 2013 or so.
In the meantime, She is just another version of Connick nostalgia, this time for the sweetly soulful Lite FM of the Jimmy Carter age. Though Connick wrote all the tunes on She, they’re mostly vague echoes of overused chord progressions and old hooks. The title track, a bouncy love song with a retro-bubble-gum double-tracked vocal, sounds like an homage to Gilbert O’Sullivan (of ”Alone Again (Naturally)” fame). ”Honestly Now,” a soupy ballad, is straight out of the Eric Carmen songbook.
On the positive side, Connick’s voice — a mixed-up buzz of forced throaty resonance and cocksure slurs — is better suited to this style of casual middle-of-the-road pop than to melodically demanding Tin Pan Alley standards. The backing of New Orleans pros is fun to hear too. Striving for swamp cred by association, Connick and producer Tracey Freeman recruited the Meters’ original bassist, George Porter Jr., and stalwart studio trumpeter Leroy Jones, and they’re having a blast here.
Like Connick with Funky Dunky, Marsalis employs another funny name descended from the reliably cool word funk. Buckshot LeFonque was derived from a pseudonym used by tenor saxophonist Cannonball Adderley when he took R&B jobs for quick cash. The gimmick betrays a project of iffy conviction. Innovators such as Digable Planets have been meshing jazz and hip-hop successfully for some time. However, the two-headed oddity Buckshot LeFonque is simply too confused to go anywhere. As hip-hop, it’s old-fashioned, with mid-’80s scratching and mixing provided by Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, and the uninspired samples lack the inside smarts that give rap its relevance. And as jazz, it’s missing the bite that others (notably the underacknowledged saxophonist Greg Osby) have brought to mixed-genre music.
Also, like most of what Marsalis does — including his work as bandleader on The Tonight Show — Buckshot LeFonque is all too serious. At one point, the weighty Maya Angelou recites one of her poems, ”I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Sure, there’s a snippet of Jay Leno telling a joke (now, there’s a way to show the kids you’re down), but it’s a gag about the Ku Klux Klan.
At their best and in their different ways, both Connick and Marsalis have always worked from idiosyncratic bases of conviction. On these records, though, they’re just funking around. She: C-