Three weeks out from the start of his summer tour, Harry Connick Jr. didn't have any idea yet which songs he'd be playing on opening night in Fort Meyers, Fla., or what the setlist would look like when he gets to Charlotte 10 days later.
Truth be told, the 50-year-old jazz musician would rather not figure it all out until he's actually up on stage sitting at his piano.
"They change every night, on the fly," Connick said recently of how he'll handle song selections for his "New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration," a 15-city jaunt that comes to Charlotte's Belk Theater on June 11 and 12. "The way I perform is — let's say I sing a ballad, and the audience is right with me every note. Well, I might sing another ballad, because I feel like that's what the people want to hear at that moment.
"When you surround yourself with amazing musicians you can do that. We're not locked into anything. I mean, we'll have a general idea of what we're gonna start with, but we really like to give every audience a custom experience — something that the people the night before, or the next night, are not gonna have. ... So we change things on the fly all the time."
For Connick — a New Orleans native who is coming off of a star turn this spring in the world premiere of "The Sting" at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse and recently ended his syndicated talk show, "Harry" — the "Tricentennial" tour is a return to his jazz roots in the form of a musical tribute to his hometown.
(La Nouvelle-Orléans was founded in the spring of 1718 by French colonists. Throughout 2018, the city of New Orleans is hosting myriad events that celebrate its rich history and culture.)
We spoke with Connick recently about the tour, his love of New Orleans and where he sees jazz's place in the world today.
Q. How are rehearsals going?
You mean for my tour? No man, we won't rehearse for that. I mean, we'll come down a day before we start and go over a couple of numbers, but I'm not a big rehearsal guy.
Q. Gotcha. So tell me about the show.
The show is gonna be a celebration of New Orleans music, 'cause this is our 300th anniversary in New Orleans. I'm so proud to be from there; everything I've ever done has been so heavily influenced by New Orleans, both musically and otherwise, and we're just gonna play a whole bunch of New Orleans music. It'll change night to night because that's just the nature of what I do and how I like to do it. I don't like to stick to the same thing. So the shows change and evolve every night. But I can tell you this: It'll be a lot of different styles of New Orleans music, everything from solo piano to big band to funk, swing — we're gonna be playing all kinds of stuff.
Q. How many musicians will you have with you?
I think there's gonna be about probably 11 of us onstage.
Q. And I noticed Charlotte's one of just five cities where you'll be doing multiple shows. How did you decide the places you wanted to spend a couple nights as opposed to just one?
Well, I'm not the one who decided. My management decides all that, the people putting the tour together. I live very much in the present, so that's another way of saying I have no idea what my schedule is. I have a team of people around me that helps me organize all that stuff. But I'm thrilled that we're gonna be there, because I love it down there.
Q. Can you talk a little bit more about how New Orleans inspires you, how it flavors your music and why it was important to you to do this?
I feel like I owe everything to my hometown. It's an amazing thing to say you've grown up in New Orleans, because for a musician, it's unbelievably fortunate to grow up around such a vibrant musical scene. I guess if I grew up in Cuba and experienced that amazing music my whole life, I would be saying the same thing about that. There are certain cities around the world that have such an identifiable musical sound, and New Orleans is one of those places. It's very hard to grow up in a place like New Orleans and not be influenced by it. And for somebody like me, who really took advantage of it, you know, the influence is so widespread, there's so many styles that I love to play, so many rhythms and harmonies that are unique to New Orleans, that led me to be the musician that I am. The culture is unique. The way I go about my life has so much to do with the way I was brought up down there. It's impossible to count the ways that New Orleans has influenced me, and I'm just honored to be from there and happy to celebrate it.
Q. How often do you get back there?
Man, I'm probably back there once every month or two. My dad lives there, and my family on my dad's side lives there, so I'm home a lot.
Q. And when you go back, do you just sort of hunker down with family, or ... ?
That's exactly what I do. I get off the plane, I go straight to my dad's house, and hang out with him and hang out with family. Once in awhile I'll play a concert down there, but most of the time, I go down just to hang out with my family, and I keep it real low-key. I don't go out much. I just usually stay at home with my dad and cook at home, or go out to eat at one of our favorite restaurants.
Q. What are some of your favorite restaurants down there?
There's one place, it's called Cava — it's in my old neighborhood of Lakeview. It's a great, great restaurant. There's Mandina's, which is a place that's been around probably since the '40s that serves great po' boys. Oh gosh, man, I could go on and on.
Q. In what ways have you seen New Orleans change over the years?
Well, the biggest change happened after (Hurricane) Katrina, because it got destroyed. I think people were so afraid that New Orleans was gonna slide off the map that they really stepped up and came back in a very positive way. There's been a lot of new businesses that have sprouted up down there, a lot of remodeled old businesses, and it's just become more vibrant. ... There's been a decline in traditional jazz, because I don't think that's something that is as popular as it once was, just because of the nature of how music changes. So that's a little sad to see. But that's the way it is. ... Still, I don't know of any place that plays traditional jazz like they do in New Orleans. I mean, I'm sure there might be a band here or there or a club here or there, but if you want to hear traditional jazz, New Orleans is where you have to go.
Q. In general, where do you see jazz's place in society now?
I think it's been about the same for the last 40 years, 50 years. Jazz was really popular in the '20s and '30s and '40s, and in the '50s rock and roll started becoming popular. I think that's when things started to change. I think jazz has always — and will always have a place — but it'll never be like pop music, because pop music changes. Jazz music had its turn, and it was fantastic, and now other types of music have taken over. Maybe one day it'll cycle back around, but it hasn't in a long time and I don't think it'll happen anytime soon. But that's OK, I mean, there's still plenty of great jazz music to listen to.
Q. Are there any young jazz artists who get you excited?
Q. Are you thinking about putting together a new album anytime soon?
Not anytime soon, only because I don't really know what it would be. But I'm starting to think about it, and hopefully one day soon I'll have some ideas and go in the studio and record. ... But the tour's the main thing. I'm just excited to get out there and play. There's a lot of other Broadway stuff and TV stuff that we're working on, but the tour really is at the center of it all, and I can't wait to come and play. I'm lucky we get to play two nights in Charlotte. Man, it's gonna be a lot of fun.
Harry Connick Jr.
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 11 and Tuesday, June 12.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-448-2868; www.blumenthalarts.org.