Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Spins: Atomic Ragtime and Radiant Folk, Chicago Style

Alt-Rock, Blues, Chicago Artists, Folk, Folk-rock, Jazz, Record Reviews, Record Store Day, Singer-Songwriter No Comments »


By Robert Rodi

I’m just a hair late to the party when it comes to “No Hotel,” the new album by Chicago’s own neo-vaudeville barnstormers, The Claudettes; but the album (which came out in September) is definitely one you should be spinning, streaming or otherwise ingesting whole. It’s the work of just three players—pianist Johnny Iguana, drummer Michael Caskey and (intermittently) vocalist Yana—but there’s enough energy going on to power your average Third World airport.

The opener, “Big Easy Women,” is full of a barreling, hyper-saloon piano banging, with a bridge that playfully evokes silent-movie peril. But it’s the second cut—“California, Here I Come”—that really makes you sit up and take notice. The Claudettes knock the hoary old Al Jolson tune into a minor key, transforming it into a wittily downbeat comment on the cruelty that so often accompanies the go-west-young-man dream. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Raw Material: Horn of Not-Quite-Plenty

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Indie Rock, Jazz, Live Reviews, Rock No Comments »

Mark Farina

It’s always a bit of a challenge scoping out shows around Thanksgiving because it’s a time period that seems to be overlooked for live music. The presumption is that everyone is out of town and/or spending time with family for the weekend. For those “Thanksgiving orphans” that stick around, or plan to head home early, there’s some good live music to look forward to in the coming weeks, as well as a few unusual and non-performance-based music events that are worth checking out.

Metro offshoot Smart Bar (3730 North Clark), early home of Frankie Knuckles and launching pad for Ministry, is approaching middle age. To celebrate, on Friday, November 20, Smart Bar cleverly celebrates its “33 1/3 Anniversary” with an A-list lineup of DJs and taking up both the Smart Bar and Metro spaces. The show includes Mark Farina, Colette, DJ Heather, Justin Long, Michael Serafini and Garrett David. Tickets are $24 in advance, $30 at the door. The 21+ show starts at 10pm at Smart Bar, 11pm at Metro. 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 »

Preview: Somi/The Promontory

Jazz, Live Reviews, Soul, World Music No Comments »



Jazz has always been a meritocracy, in the sense that hooks matter more than looks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate a concentrated dose of oomph when it’s right there in front of us. Peggy Lee worked it. So did Nina Simone. And the New York singer-songwriter Somi (born in Illinois to Ugandan and Rwandan parents) has the same kind of high-voltage charisma. She also has an absolutely exquisite instrument—graceful, gorgeous and under her complete control. In the fifties, she’d have knocked ‘em dead in supper clubs; today, she’s slaughtering digitally, in ravishing videos like her simmering R&B ballad, “Ginger Me Slowly.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Spins: Ambitious Jazz from a Youthful Duo, Relaxed Swing from a Seasoned Trio

Chicago Artists, Jazz No Comments »

Copy of SACREDRUBBLE_cover

By Robert Rodi

Sun Speak is a pair of young free-jazz players, Chicagoans Matt Gold (guitar) and Nate Friedman (drummer). Despite their relative youth, the pair have been working together for long enough to develop the kind of telepathy you find only in the most accomplished duos, and their new EP, “Sacred Rubble,” is filled with ideas that bounce between them faster than you can register on first listening. From the opening cut—“Solar Beast”—they manage to sound like a much larger ensemble, not only by the density and energy of their playing, but by a judicious use of multi-tracking. Though in fact this first cut does also boast a single guest, sax player Ben Schmidt-Swartz, who’s also used with admirable restraint. After a coolly lilting guitar theme, the drums barrel in to give the line a sudden, driving insistence. The sax picks up the theme, giving it a new, more reflective resonance—but the drums don’t let up, so that in his searing, blitzkrieg solo, Schmidt-Swartz’s playing has a life-or-death urgency to it, like he’s trying to outrun a lava flow that’s hot on his heels. The drums eventually fade, leaving that gorgeous theme upfront again—though this time taken up by both guitar and sax. It’s a ravishing ride. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Vincent Davis Percussion Plus/Constellation

Chicago Artists, Jazz, Live Reviews, New Music No Comments »



Jazz is a collaborative art form, but you can hang out on the scene a long time before you hit a happening where one of the collaborators is a visual artist. When that occurs, odds are the collaborator in question is Lewis Achenbach, who’s spent the past few years turning painting into a performing art by improvising on canvas alongside the city’s most adventurous jazz and new-music players. For Chicago Artists’ Month, Achenbach once again has the good fortune to hook up with Vincent Davis Percussion Plus, an ensemble of topflight free-jazz players. Read the rest of this entry »

Spins: A Hard-Swinging Suite from Nick Mazzarella Trio

Chicago Artists, Jazz, Record Reviews No Comments »


Chicagoan Nick Mazzarella plays alto sax with the kind of virile swagger that yanks you back through the decades to when this kind of strident, unsentimental sound split the whole goddamn twentieth century clean in two. It’s still surprisingly subversive to modern ears—which is why a lot of people run from this kind of fearlessly improvised jazz; it’s not safe—it’s here to challenge, not comfort. And on its new record, “Ultraviolet,” that’s exactly what Mazzarella’s trio does. The tunes were originally composed for a residency at the late, lamented Curio lounge in 2012, and they form a breathtaking free-jazz suite. All the titles relate to scientific inquiry—from the modern (“Neutron Star”) to the archaic (“Abacus and Astrolabe,” “Luminous Dials”), and from wave theory (the title cut) to paleontology (“Archaeopteryx,” “Fossil”). It’s a pretty clear indication that what these guys are about is straight-up investigation—of rhythm, of tone, of harmony—and that silos like classification aren’t going to get in their way.  Read the rest of this entry »

Fall Music Preview 2015

Blues, Chicago Artists, Jazz, Latin, Lists and Guides No Comments »

By Seth Boustead

I decided to write my fall music preview as the lead sheet to an original tune in the style of Charlie Parker. Parker was an amazing composer and performer, of course; but he was also generous and gregarious, which I feel could equally well be said about the musicians who make the Chicago scene so special.


For the more verbally-oriented among you, however, here are my picks for essential fall music events.

Ellen McSweeney and Sam Scranton Present MIMIC
Chicago label Parlour Tapes + presents the violinist/writer and composer/percussionist in a collaborative piece that is a kind of mash-up of music as ancient ritual with futuristic philosophical spirituality.
September 10, 7:30pm at Comfort Station, 2579 North Milwaukee. 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 »