I had a conversation last week with a New York musician visiting town, and in the inevitable comparison between the Chicago jazz scene and the cornucopia of jazz offerings in his city, I was reminded of a truism describing the interurban divide.
The Big Apple provides a comparative cornucopia of jazz events; perusing the New York listings can seem like reading a contemporary roll call of international jazz stars. On any given night, you’ll find a dozen sets you can’t wait to hear, while in Chicago, depending on the night, you might find only three or four.
But realistically, you can’t get to more than two (at most three) per night, right? Hence the truism: the difference between the New York and Chicago scenes is that New York offers more performances that you’ll have to miss – more things that get lost in the shuffle. And depending on the week, even that may not hold true.
Case in point: two Thursday-night events, neither of which has received much notice, featuring vocalists rarely heard in town these days. They couldn’t be more different, and their head-to head bookings underscore how much activity easily slips beneath the radar, even in Chicago.
At Katerina’s (1920 W. Irving Park), the gracefully ageless vocalist Audrey Morris will take the stage for perhaps only a few tunes, but the entire evening belongs to her nonetheless: it’s billed as Celebrating the Artistry of Audrey Morris by its headliner, the splendidly tuneful singer Paul Marinaro. Marinaro has a deceptively suave style that almost masks his solid swing, and a hearty Sangiovese of a baritone, and like every other Chicago vocalist working the demilitarized zone between jazz and cabaret, he holds Morris in high regard that borders on worship. You can’t blame him for that.
Morris came of musical age in the 50s, working the now legendary but then brand-new Rush Street nightclub Mister Kelly’s. She soon moved to the equally iconic London House, where her trio played intermission music while the headliners regrouped, and Morris caught the ear of the scores of outstanding jazz stars who paraded through the place. They noted the easy confidence that allowed her to sell a song without overstating it, and the sure musicality that underlied her approach; she quickly attained a reputation as a not-so-hidden Chicago gem.
Morris made a couple of well-received albums in the mid-50s but essentially left the scene in the 1960s; her 1981 return was justifiably heralded, and led to several more albums in the 80s and 90s. I last heard her about a year ago, at the memorial concert for pianist Joe Vito (a friend for six decades). Four days shy of her 82nd birthday, she offered a lovely anecdote, then sang with the cool intelligence, textured emotion, and unforced swing that were always her trademark.
Celebrating her artistry should be a piece of cake.
The show at Katerina’s starts at 8, which puts it smack up against the Chicago debut of singer-songwriter Rondi Charleston (7:30 at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse). Actually, that’s not quite true: Charleston’s “Chicago debut” was her birth, to an English-professor father and voice-teacher mother in Hyde Park, where she grew up.
Both parents’ predilections played a part in her pretty fascinating career choices. She left Chicago to study music at Juilliard, shifted briefly to theater and then back to music (studying opera) before gravitating to journalism and landing a job working with Diane Sawyer on the ABC-TV program Prime Time Live. She stayed in TV news for six years before returning to music full-time, recording her first disc in 2001; her fourth, Who Knows Where The Time Goes (Motema), has received a slew of good reviews.
For all that, however, jazz aficionados will take special note of the band Charleston brings with her. It features guitarist Dave Stryker, well known for his own bands as well as the acclaimed quartet he leads with saxist Steve Slagle; bassist Ed Howard; the former Chicagoan drummer Anthony Pinciotti, a precision powerhouse highly regarded on the New York scene; and the explosive Cuban-born percussionist Mayra Casales.
Leading Charleston’s band is pianist Brandon McCune, the Chicago native whose recent homecoming, played out in several bands led by Orbert Davis, constituted a highlight of the last month’s Chicago Jazz Festival; his newly released album Tell The Story reveals a modern mastery of essential jazz virtues like swing, melody, and old-school preparation. But just for good measure, Charleston’s label-mate and writing partner Lynne Arriale – a distinctive and consequential pianist in her own right, with a dozen albums to her credit – is along for several tunes as well.
With a lineup like that, you have to wonder why you didn’t already know about this gig. Blame the chronically underperforming publicity department at Mayne Stage: how a band like this could slip into town virtually without notice is frankly amazing. But you know about it now, and if you can fork over the $25 cover, at least you’ll know what it’s paying for.