Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Billy Strayhorn Lived a “Lush Life” Beyond Duke Ellington

Big Band, Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Vocal Music No Comments »
Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn

Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn

By Dennis Polkow

When Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli first came up with the idea of devoting an entire concert to the music of Billy Strayhorn more than a decade ago, the first question was often, “Billy who?”

“It was for a gay chorus that I directed for eight years in Los Angeles,” recalls Rastrelli, “and they had a tradition of doing single composer concerts: Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman. I wanted to move beyond doing composers that were obvious. I wanted to challenge the chorus and the community with things they didn’t know, specifically jazz, and especially a black composer who was out and gay at a time when that was not at all typical.”

Strayhorn is best known for his near thirty-year association with Duke Ellington, from the time they met in 1938 until Strayhorn’s early death from cancer in 1967 at the age of fifty-one. Often given direct credit, sometimes not, Strayhorn is estimated to have composed and arranged some forty percent of the entire Ellington catalogue and was, as Ellington himself put it in his autobiography, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Strayhorn Fringe Festival/Old Town School of Folk Music

Bluegrass, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Funk, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Live Reviews, World Music No Comments »


This is Billy Strayhorn’s centenary, and it’s been heartening to see so much attention paid to a songwriter whose gifts are almost in inverse proportion to his fame—i.e. the former stratospheric, the latter microscopic. Part of the problem is that Strayhorn is so closely associated with Duke Ellington, who was one of the more flamboyantly extrovert of the past century’s geniuses. Another part is that Strayhorn himself was quite happy to reside in Ellington’s shadow. The result is that today people are surprised to learn that tunes indelibly associated with Ellington—such as “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”—are in fact Strayhorn’s compositions. It’s hard for us to think of them in a new way; they’re so bonded to our DNA. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: World Music Festival, from A (AfroSoundz) to Z (Zedashe)

Afrobeat, Festivals, World Music No Comments »

Tanya Tagaq

By Gail Dee

The seventeenth World Music Festival Chicago continues through September 22. The city’s free annual cultural blood transfusion, which began on September 11, presents fifty artists from twenty-six countries with over sixty performances taking place at fifteen venues.

The “O.M.G. did you see?” of the entire festival is certain to be the long-awaited Chicago debut of the intense Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagaq (September 19 at Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago) performing a searing live soundtrack to the 1922 silent film “Nanook of the North.” It’s her sole performance in the festival. Like Dakha Brakha in 2013, this is an artist you won’t soon forget. Don’t come expecting a lyrical, meditative musical experience; her intention is to express herself without restraint, and she can be sonically shocking. Most of her shows are improvised, though this performance does have a score (written by a composer Derek Charke). Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: World Music Fest Brings Musical Adventures From Around the Globe to Town

Festivals, Live Reviews, World Music No Comments »

Aziz Sahmaoui

By Gail Dee

The seventeenth annual World Music Festival Chicago hits town September 11-22, bringing musical adventures from across the globe. It’s the largest festival of its kind in the U.S., yet appallingly many Chicagoans have never heard of it; you can help spread the word. Completely free to the public since 2012, this cultural feast is absolutely no risk—enjoy just a nibble or consume the whole bounty. This year there are more than fifty different artists from twenty-six countries represented in sixty performances.

Unlike other festivals produced by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, WMF is spread out among eighteen different venues, including Martyrs’, Mayne Stage, City Winery, Chicago Cultural Center, Old Town School of Folk Music, The Promontory, Museum of Contemporary Art and Jay Pritzker Pavilion. You can pick up a printed schedule or check it out online. This year the city is also experimenting with a new phone app called Eventfest, to help you navigate the various performances. Some venues—like Mayne Stage and Old Town School—allow you to reserve tickets; I highly recommend this for the only performance by Manitoba artist Tanya Tagaq, which complements a screening of the 1922 silent film “Nanook of the North” on September 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 East Chicago); it will definitely sell out. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Sinatra Jr. Is Perfectly Frank on the Man Behind the Legend

Big Band, Festivals, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Vocal Music No Comments »
Frank Sinatra Jr.

Frank Sinatra Jr.

By Dennis Polkow

“There is a lot of traffic out there in this kind of show for this year,” admits Frank Sinatra Jr. on the myriad of Sinatra salutes happening throughout 2015, the centennial of his father’s birth. “Many, many people have taken it upon themselves to do this kind of thing. They can, of course, recreate the music. But because this is the one-hundredth anniversary, I felt it was very important that people also learn something about the individual.

“We’re no longer talking about a man who is a famous performer, a famous movie star. Now we’re talking about somebody who is being time-honored with a century of recognition. For that reason, I think it’s time to know that person. We already know his accomplishments, now let’s concentrate on the person.”

From the beginning of his own career some fifty years ago, Frank Jr. always performed “at least a song or two of Sinatra,” as he calls the public figure, “but I worked hard to have my own identity.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Fred Hersch Trio/Chicago Jazz Festival

Festivals, Jazz, Live Reviews No Comments »



Jazz Fest ambles into town the first weekend of September, and as usual there’s a sense of having waited for the larger and noisier summer festivals to yield the lakefront in exhaustion, so that the grownups can move in and get down to the serious business of making serious music. Among the many highlights will be Friday’s appearance by composer/pianist Fred Hersch, whose latest CD release is a solo outing (entitled, rather unenterprisingly, “Solo”) that’s garnering ecstatic reviews from the cognoscenti. But for Jazz Fest he’ll be heading up his trio, which includes bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Read the rest of this entry »

Raw Material: Riot Fest and the Summer Wrap-up

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, EDM, Electronic/Dance, Festivals, Garage Rock, Hip-Hop, Indie Rock, Rock No Comments »


By Keidra Chaney

Lollapalooza is the juggernaut and Pitchfork the tastemaker’s favorite, but for me Riot Fest is the best music festival in town. As a rocker at heart, I’ll cop to a strong bias: the festival started as a multi-venue underground punk and metal showcase, and it’s currently one of the few festivals to stay (for the most part) true to its rock roots over the years. But there’s a lot more live music to check out in the next couple of weeks outside of Riot Fest, including North Coast Festival, if hip-hop, EDM and jam bands are more your speed, and an eclectic group of DJs and musicians paying tribute to Kate Bush.

Before the festival season wraps in Chicago, on September 3 at Beat Kitchen (2100 West Belmont) there’s a sucker punch of peppy garage punk with the city’s own Swimsuit Addition opening for St. Louis duo Bruiser Queen. Their 2014 full-length “Wretched Pinups” is like listening to nineties riot grrrl bands, surf-punk, eighties new wave and a little sixties girl group mixed in a sonic blender. (You can also check out a new remix of their single “Talk is Cheap” on their Bandcamp page.) Show starts at 9pm and is 17+; tickets are $8. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Black and Brown Punk Show/Various venues

Chicago Artists, Festivals, Live Reviews, Punk No Comments »

Moor Mother Goddess


Back in 2013 I first wrote about the Black and Brown Punk Show; sadly my comments about Chicago’s diverse but largely segregated rock music scene pretty much still stand two years later. But I want to call attention to this year’s festival as it’s an overlooked gem of an event that our city has the honor of hosting annually.

Over two days, twenty-plus punk acts come to the city in an all-ages celebration of Chicago’s multiracial, DIY punk scene that is also a safe space for queer and trans folks of color. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Grant Park’s Carlos Kalmar Craves the New, Whether in Music or in Life

Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Carlos and Raffaela Kalmar with newborn son Luca Pedro/Photo courtesy of Carlos Kalmar

Carlos and Raffaela Kalmar with newborn son Luca Pedro. Photo Courtesy of Carlos Kalmar

By Dennis Polkow

“He’s such a joy,” says proud father Carlos Kalmar of his son Luca Pedro, who was born on the last day of 2014. “It’s really great, I’m very happy. I don’t know if having a newborn makes you a bit more soft, that is for others to say. But it adds a component to life in general that is somehow reflected in your work when the occasion is given. In music, sometimes the depth of what we do may get even deeper. But who am I to judge?”

Kalmar has two children from a previous marriage and even a grandson. “I have started over,” he laughs. “I have two daughters who are twenty-seven and twenty-five. When you’re older, or to some extent older, I think the influence of children on you is amazing. I’m not talking about grandchildren, they are fantastic: I have one, but I don’t see him very often because he lives in Europe. But to have a child of your own when you’re older changes some things. And it’s all for the better.”

Renewal remains a virtual archetype for Kalmar, who thrives on new challenges and on learning, performing and introducing audiences to new pieces. For the closing weekend of the Grant Park Music Festival, for instance, Kalmar will conduct the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus with guest vocal soloists in a rare complete performance of Elgar’s oratorio “The Kingdom.” Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: From Desert Blues to Peruvian Psychedelia

Festivals, Live Reviews, World Music No Comments »


By Gail Dee

Tinariwen, an ensemble from the Sarahan desert of Mali (coming to Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 North Lincoln, August 26, 8pm, $38/$36 members), is the Tuareg band upon which we measure all the rest, because it’s desert blues at its finest. The group’s first performance in Chicago was in 2004 at the Chicago Cultural Center and they have been back several times. (One unforgettable night in 2011, after growling unhappily at Metro’s staff for putting me in second-floor handicapped seating far from the stage because I was on a crutch, I serendipitously ended up dancing with the Tuareg ladies who were part of the tour—the stage door opens upstairs to a reserved seating area!) Their style of music is considered to be the roots of the American blues; it’s trance-inducing, and as expansive as the desert, with band members trading electric-guitar riffs like heat shimmering on the horizon. The simple rhythms are reminiscent of camels walking in the sand for hundreds of miles. Lyrics speak of sadness and rebellion, as these nomadic people have endured civil unrest and war in their homeland for many years. However, the same night I was happily grooving on a crutch with the lovely ladies in long robes, my companion—a jazz drummer—was critical of what he called repetitive rhythm and thought the graceful, languorous movement of the dancers wasn’t much. I reminded him of the Saharan heat and said I didn’t think it would be the place for break-dancing. Personally I’ve never been disappointed by Tinariwen. Read the rest of this entry »