In 33 years of covering music for the Tribune — first as a freelancer and then as a staffer — I've chronicled great performances across the city and around the world.
Many are covered in my newest book, “Let Freedom Swing: Collected Writings on Jazz, Blues and Gospel” (Northwestern University Press, $24.95).
Jazz Here's a quick glance at the 10 best concerts I've heard, in chronological order:
“The Great Nitty Gritty,” Feb. 28, 1983, at the Playhouse in McCormick Place. This groundbreaking jazz musical by Oscar Brown Jr. never received a fraction of the attention it deserved. But Brown's exuberant music, wickedly clever lyrics and unyielding social conscience proved indelible.
Ella Fitzgerald, June 16, 1991, at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. Fitzgerald, at 74, had to be walked to the front of the stage, and her once-spectacular technique clearly had dissipated. But she very nearly made up for it with tremendous bursts of sonic creativity and invention, proving that there always was more to Fitzgerald's art than just her extraordinary vocal prowess.
Miles Davis, Aug. 22, 1991, in Grant Park. In the next-to-last performance of his life, Davis mercifully dropped his rock, fusion and hip-hop poses. Instead, he returned to his bebop roots, playing with a mercurial brilliance and technical acuity not heard from him in a long time (notwithstanding a backup band that couldn't keep up).
Wynton Marsalis Septet, June 1, 1994, in Quinn Chapel. Is it possible to conjure up the fervor of a gospel service in a three-hour jazz suite? Trumpeter Marsalis and his iconic septet answered the question definitively in Marsalis' “In this House, on This Morning,” thundering in an age-old South Side church.
Frank Sinatra, Oct. 22, 1994, at the United Center. In his final Chicago performance — and one of the last of his career — Ol' Blue Eyes caressed ballads and ignited uptempo pieces. At concert's end, he asked the crowd to “think about me once in a while.” I've never stopped.
Marcus Roberts, July 1, 1995, at the Skyline Stage on Navy Pier. Several pianists have improvised on Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” with orchestra — but Roberts did it first, and best. While the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra played Gershwin's masterwork as written, Roberts and his trio daringly reconceived an American classic.
Tropicana Orchestra, Dec. 14, 1998, at the Tropicana, in Havana. Nowhere in the world have I found the level of musicianship higher than in Havana, where even street musicians often rank as virtuosos. The band at the fabled Tropicana nightclub epitomized the city's musical prowess, complete with screaming horns and incendiary percussion.
Danilo Perez, Jan. 21, 2005, at Teatro Anayansi, in Panama City. Playing in the second annual Panama Jazz Festival — which he founded — Panamanian pianist Perez showed tremendous harmonic sophistication and tonal subtlety, leading a trio staffed by drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John Patitucci. The hometown crowd roared its approval, welcoming home a native son who years earlier had moved to America.
Igor Butman, June 27, 2005, at Le Club in Moscow. Yes, the Russians can swing. Butman, an explosive saxophonist, led his big band in performances as combustive as anything you would hear in a jazz club in Chicago or New York.
Grazyna Auguscik, July 25, 2010, at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Frederic Chopin's bicentennial has been celebrated far and wide this year, but rarely with such originality and fire. Polish-born, Chicago-based singer Auguscik and an international group of instrumentalists illuminated Chopin's piano works — through jazz.