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Harry Connick Jr. gives a 'Great Performance' for PBS

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Partway through one of the two shows taped for "Great Performances: Harry Connick Jr. in Concert on Broadway," airing Wednesday, March 2, on PBS (check local listings), a woman in the audience yells out, "Kick the tires and light the fires!"

It's a reminder that for people who don't follow jazz or New Orleans music in general, Connick just might be the guy who said that -- as wisecracking fighter pilot Jimmy Wilder in the 1996 science-fiction film "Independence Day."

Or he might be a World War II tail gunner in 1990's "Memphis Belle," a serial killer in 1995's "Copycat" or Grace's husband in television's "Will & Grace." These are only a few of his 20-plus film and voice roles, the most recent being in the upcoming feature "Dolphin Tale," the inspirational story of a handicapped dolphin.

When he's not acting -- or appearing in or composing a Broadway musical -- Connick is one of the leading figures in modern jazz, as a pianist, singer and bandleader. It's his purely musical side that's on display in the PBS special, taped July 30 and 31, 2010, at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway in New York.

"It's not a Broadway show," says Connick, taking a few minutes to talk in a hotel meeting room before performing for a roomful of reporters at the January edition of the biannual Television Critics Association Press Tour. "It's more of a concert. It's not like I had prepared dialogue or even a prepared set. There were a group of songs that we chose from, but I was up there for two weeks, and we filmed the last two nights. It's a relatively small room; there's a sense of intimacy.

"More than that, we never play a place for two weeks, so the familiarity of going to the same place every night just gives a different dynamic. Everybody was carefree. It was really just about documenting what the band was doing at the time.

"So we probably could have filmed any show on the tour; we just thought it would be special to do something on Broadway. Playing New York is in some ways a bigger deal, because it's New York. Playing at the Neil Simon, there's a lot of history there. I didn't feel like I had to live up to anything, but it's just a sense of 'this is pretty cool.' "

Of course, being part of something called "Great Performances" carries expectations of its own.

"Well," Connick says, "I don't really think of it like that. I was really excited to know that I'd be a part of it. I guess, at my stage of my career, as somebody who's done it for a long time, I don't know if I'd put the word 'great.'

"I don't think about that, and I don't think of myself in those terms, but to be part of an established series like that is pretty cool. We're thrilled about it."

Not being a performer known for hit singles, Connick says he doesn't feel required to play certain tunes, but admits, "Probably the song I'm most known for is 'It Had to Be You,' so I played that just because I think it's nice, because people associate me with that song -- at least some people do.

"But I certainly have done an infinite amount of shows where I haven't played it. So I can be a little bit below the radar with song choices."

Other songs on the special's roster include "The Way You Look Tonight," "Besame Mucho," "Hear Me in the Harmony," "All the Way," "St. James Infirmary Blues," "How Come You Do Me Like You Do," "Bourbon Street Parade" and "Mardi Gras in New Orleans."

While Connick knows he's not the sort of performer who will go on worldwide sports-arena tours or burn up the Top 40, he says, "I know who I am; I know what I do. I'm 43; I'm not chasing rainbows. I love what I do, and I'll keep trying to find avenues to do what I do, like this was a great opportunity for me to be on this 'Great Performances' thing.

"So I don't really care, is the bottom line. I think it's great that new music is coming along, and music changes, but there's no bitterness there. It is what it is. You have your time; you do what you do.

"Like my manager always says -- she's been with me since I was 18 -- just focus on your work, and eventually your body of work will speak for itself. That's what I've always done."

As for his beloved hometown, still emerging from the shadow of Hurricane Katrina, Connick says, "I think we're headed in the right direction. As tragic as that was, I think there's a lot of good that came out of it."

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