The last time Chicago heard singer-pianist Judy Roberts, she was closing out her annual summer residency here and heading back to Arizona.
Each time she returns, she reminds us of what we've been missing, just as the enthusiastic ovations she received Wednesday night at the Jazz Showcase surely reminded her of what she left behind when she moved west in 2007.
Though Roberts' long absences undoubtedly pain her fans, the time away also intensifies everything about her performances. If you haven't heard Roberts for nearly a year, you admire anew the subtlety of her vocals, the ambitiousness of her pianism and the breadth of repertoire and styles she commands. It's easy to take all of that for granted when she's playing around town seven nights a week, but it seems quite striking when you haven't encountered her singular gifts in a while.
Clearly eager to re-establish musical contact not only with her audience but also with her saxophonist husband Greg Fishman, who's based here, Roberts applied more energy, fervor and technical elan to her work than one expected from an already hyperactive musician. Up-tempo pieces moved faster, ballads unfolded more slowly, bebop tunes conveyed more frenzy than before, the effort producing an opening set of considerable impact.
Roberts and Fishman, who were joined by their longtime collaborators Jim Cox on bass and Rusty Jones on drums, opened boldly with Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," a kind of informal curtain-raiser for the annual Bird celebration next month at the Showcase. Though the band clearly was getting warmed up, the rhythmic thrust of Roberts' pianism and the vivid tone and sharp attacks of Fishman's work on tenor saxophone made at least one thing inescapably clear: Each of these musicians reaches a little higher in the other one's company.
Some months ago, Roberts and Fishman convened in a recording studio to put down a tune that's being used for the closing credits in the new Jerry Lewis movie "Max Rose," which was directed and written by Roberts' nephew Daniel Noah. The family connections run even deeper, though, because the song, "Gornisht" (which is Yiddish for "Nothing"), was composed in the 1930s by Roberts' father, the guitarist Robert Loewy.
Judging by what Roberts called the first public performance of the tune, it richly deserves its inclusion in the forthcoming film, or any other. Sophisticated in its harmonic language, the piece foreshadows the chromatic chord changes we associate with Billy Strayhorn and others in the 1950s. It's a plaintive, yearning nocturne that gave rise to dexterously embellished melody lines from Fishman and lush, unabashedly romantic pianism from Roberts. The piece should become an enduring part of their repertory.
But every song in this set explored a different realm of sound. Roberts brought sly sophistication to her lyric reading in Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," her piano solo defined by fast-flying lines and massive, parallel chords in both hands.
If some of Iola Brubeck's lyrics to Paul Desmond's "Take Five" were lost to a quick tempo and vocal over-reverberation, Roberts compensated with a free-ranging, harmonically complex cadenza evoking the solo-piano flights of Dave Brubeck in quasi-classical mode.
And when Roberts fired off scat vocals in unison with Fishman's speedy lines on tenor in "Donna Lee," there was no question that these two belong together in music.
Judy Roberts Quartet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: 806 South Plymouth Ct.
Tickets: $25-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com