After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in the summer of 2005, musician Harry Connick, Jr. was one of the first people to lend not only his celebrity, but also his own two hands in aid to the survivors of the catastrophe. Connick brought a television crew with him as he traveled through his damaged hometown and shot footage to help draw attention to the situation. Soon after, he organized the benefit telethon A Concert for Hurricane Relief on NBC to raise money for the beleaguered residents of New Orleans. It was clear through all of this that Connick truly loved his hometown and perhaps even felt he owed the city a debt for all it had given to him. In that light, though he tastefully underplays his feelings about the tragedy, Connick's Oh, My Nola is clearly his response to Hurricane Katrina. But rather than making a one-note album filled with anger and sadness -- though he expresses those emotions here, too -- Oh, My Nola feels at once like a party-driven celebration of all that is New Orleans and a love letter to the city he almost lost. Featuring songs from, of, and about New Orleans, Oh, My Nola touches on almost every musical style that has come from the city and, in a similar sense, every style Connick has delved into over the years. For that reason it's both his most expansive and personal album to date, and finally finds the pianist/vocalist/arranger coalescing his eclectic tastes in jazz standards, stride piano, funk, Cajun, gospel, and contemporary pop under a unified vision that not surprisingly takes him back to the roots of New Orleans music.
To these ends, he turns Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey's classic R&B cut "Working in the Coal Mine" into a swaggeringly funky big-band workout. Similarly inventive, he does Hughie Cannon's traditional "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" as a second-line-inspired big-band swing number reminiscent of his own When Harry Met Sally soundtrack. But while these numbers showcase Connick's obvious talent for arranging and crafting large ensemble numbers, other cuts such as the traditional "Careless Love" reveal his more laid-back, country-inflected barroom piano style that recalls his early solo albums 20 and 25. Mixing this approach, Connick once again returns to Toussaint with the spiritual and motivational "Yes We Can" in a loping and funky, large-ensemble style. Always a student of American popular song, it's no surprise that Connick's original compositions stand up next to the classic tracks here; however, it's also on these originals that he moves toward expressing his anger over what happened to the city. On the half-improvised, stark, and funky "All These People" Connick sings, "I was so damn scared I held hands and wandered with the crazy man, but he wasn't crazy and I wasn't scared/We were just brothers that stood there and stared at all those people waiting there." It's one of the few moments of outright protest on the album and deftly conveys Connick's first-hand account of post-hurricane New Orleans. However, listening to the whole of Oh, My Nola, it becomes clear that the true protest Connick is concerned with is a protest of the soul against events that conspire to erase all that we hold dear. This is best expressed in Connick's own title track. Set to a simple midtempo traditional New Orleans jazz beat, he sings, "How proud would Louie and Mahalia be, to know that their memory was safe with me?/Oh, my Nola, old and true and strong just like a tall magnolia tree/Sit me in the shade and I'm right where I belong/Oh, my New Orleans, wait for me." ~ Matt Collar