The most tender moment in Judy Roberts' show Wednesday night at the Jazz Showcase occurred early on, when she played a solo version of the rarely performed ballad "Yesterday I Heard the Rain."
The choice was significant because Roberts had performed the tune with Chicago singer-guitarist Frank D'Rone during the final concert of his life, last August at the Auditorium Theatre – shortly before his death in October at age 81.
"Frank, wherever you are..." Roberts said softly, before paying homage to a man who was her close friend and one of the most sensitive singer-guitarists ever to call Chicago home. Not surprisingly, Roberts' version had a good deal of melancholy about it, but also a harmonic sophistication and gentleness of touch that D'Rone probably would have appreciated.
Here was an exquisite vignette recast as if it were a Chopin nocturne, complete with rolled chords, rhapsodic phrasing and a heady air of romanticism. The rendition was brief but packed with musical events, Roberts saying a great deal about the piece and about her feelings for D'Rone.
That wasn't the only tribute of the night. Roberts had a long-lasting friendship with pianist and radio host Marian McPartland, an indefatigable artist who shattered many glass ceilings and was a role model not only to Roberts but to generations of women in jazz. McPartland also died last year – at the exalted age of 95 – and Roberts understandably felt compelled to recall that great musician, as well.
To do so, Roberts chose to play one of McPartland's most evocative and well-known songs, "Twilight World," an impressionistic piece that showcased Roberts' idiosyncrasies as pianist and vocalist. It also reminded listeners of how much Roberts has been missed since she moved to Arizona from Chicago in 2007.
Her visits back home have been getting longer each year, and this engagement at the Jazz Showcase launched her spring-summer season here. To hear Roberts applying new strands of harmony and motif to "Twilight World" and singing in that sweet, breathy manner of hers was to be glad she has returned.
More than many singer-pianists, Roberts knows her way around a keyboard and would be well worth hearing if she didn't sing a note. She proved the point throughout her first set but especially in music of Thelonious Monk, Roberts unfurling large parallel chords in both hands with a technical finesse and swing sensibility that was more difficult to achieve than she made it seem.
Tenor saxophonist Greg Fishman, her husband, was Roberts' primary foil through most of the set, and the two anticipated each other's gestures as perhaps only musicians as close as they are could do. They long ago mastered their voice-and-saxophone version of Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," tossing of the rhythmically tricky tune in unison.
But Fishman turned in his best work in Charles Lloyd's "Sweet Georgia Bright," producing plenty of energy and fire but also finessing the song's mercurial start-stop rhythms. Joined by two other longtime Chicago collaborators, bassist Jim Cox and drummer Rusty Jones, Roberts presided over what amounted to a reunion band.
So there was a palpable degree of nostalgia to this evening, but it never quite teetered over into sentimentality. The musical level was too high for that, and Roberts' expressions of admiration for D'Rone and McPartland too deep.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admission: $25-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com