Review and photos by James Walker
When the crowd began to stream into the legendary Checkerboard Lounge for the weekly Hyde Park Checker Jazz set on Sunday (7/8/07), it was quite evident that this was to be a very special evening. The Checker staff scurried around the specious room in search for extra seats, Willie Pickens angled over the electric keyboard with a puzzled look. At that point, his daughter Bethany appeared to give him “hints” on the instrument that Willie is seldom seen playing in public: Willies's familiar instrument the baby grand was nowhere to be found.
Before Willie and bandmates, bassist Marlene Rosenberg and drummer Bethany (that's right, Bethany, who is an accomplished pianist was accompanying her who could hit the their first note, a buzz was in the air as this standing room only crowd anxiously anticipated the start of a special perfromance. Among those present to learn from the “Master” were two of Chicago's finest keyboardists, Reginald T. McCants, and Dee Alexander's pianist, Miguel de la Cerna. In addition, legendary South Side pianist John Wright, a renowned trombonist Julian Priester, and drummer Charles “Rick” Heath were also present. The only other Checker Jazz attendance that even came close to this audience were those produced when Corey Wilkes and Dee Alexander performed.
Onec the first set was on the way, it was nonstop action for 90 minutes. Willie started the set with a Buddy Golson tune, “Whisper Not.” That was followed by a Herbe Hancock song —“Finger Snap.” It was during this song that Bethany demonstrated her skills as a drummer. Throughout the entire evening, Marlene Rosenberg was simply exceptional. Marlene is “old school” when it comes to bass playing, as she can always be seen playing the upright bass. It was a pleasure watching her flick those fingers with the greatest of ease, at all times producing deep bass tones.
The first set was peppered with such a diverse group of tunes , from Duke Ellington's standard “Take the A Train,” Monk's “I Need You,”spiritually-inspired “Wade in the Water,” to bluesy-oriented “Things Ain't What They Used to Be.” It was on this tune that Willie had the crowd on its feet, clapping hands and tapping their feet. It was the perfect tune for the Checkerboard crowd that ended the first set. Needless to say, Willie and his group received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Opening the second set, Pickens again demonstrated his musical ingenuity by playing a tune from the 14th Century written for King Henry of England, entitled “The Battle Song.” This timeless music, played with fleet-fingered fluidity produced rapid-fire lines, with repeated licks and sweeping block chords.
They hit their peak during the second set in a compelling version of “Killer Joe,” with Pickens' passionate playing going into overdrive. This writer has seen Pickens on numerous occasions and never has he been so energetic and animated as he was throughout this set. Willie is usually very serene and cerebral, but this evening he appeared to be in a jazzy/bluesy zone.
Although there were many opportunities throughout the evening for band mates Marlene Rosenberg and Bethany Pickens to shine and display their individual sound and skills, tonight was Willie's night. He was at his absolute best as he took the audience from the “The Church to the Juke Joint,” with intermediate stops in between. If there were any doubts about who's the reigning Chicago piano Maestro, rest assured it's still the incomparable Willie Pickens.
This writer has observed and reviewed dozens of jazz concerts and club sets this year and rates this performance as one of, if not the absolute best gigs this far. Those not in attendance missed a gem of a show.
Finally – upcoming jazz at the Checkerboard as follows:
July 22nd Reginald T. McCants
July 29th Orbert Davis
Checker Jazz at the Checkerboard Lounge is located at 5201 S. Harper every Sunday beginning at 7:30pm. Don't miss this great jazz on the South Side.