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At last, a spotlight on Chicago piano master Ron Perrillo

Howard Reich

10:32 AM EDT, April 24, 2014

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On Saturday night, one of the best pianists in this city will take the stage of the Green Mill Jazz Club as bandleader for the first time in several years.

For anyone who values keyboard virtuosity, harmonic sophistication and musical invention of a high order, Ron Perrillo's appearance counts as a major occasion.

Why Perrillo doesn't command the spotlight as bandleader more often is anyone's guess, but if you've ever heard him playing as sideman in any number of small groups, you already understand why musicians admire him greatly. The last time I heard Perrillo, powering the Chicago Jazz Orchestra Sextet last month at Andy's, he emerged as a center of gravity of an already formidable ensemble.

When Perrillo took solos, other musicians in the band gathered near the keyboard for the chance to watch him work.

For Saturday night's engagement, Perrillo has convened a characteristically unconventional quintet featuring trombonist Tom Garling and vocalist Hinda Hoffman, plus longtime Perrillo collaborator Dennis Carroll on bass and rising star Makaya McCraven on drums.

"I was going to try to put together a purely instrument quintet," says Perrillo, who received the Green Mill invitation a few weeks ago, "but people were booked or not available.

"And then it dawned on me: Tom Garling is playing with us with Hinda" last weekend at Room 43. "Why not try to continue with whatever vibe we get going and bring it into the Mill?

"I think the unusual pairing of trombone and female voice would be quite nice.

"Tom is one of those guys you just can't figure out – he doesn't have any interest or aptitude for self promotion. But he's one of the greatest trombone players in the world."

Roughly the same assessment could be made of Perrillo, a musician whom colleagues tend to refer to with a single word: "monster," as in someone who categorically dominates his instrument and understandably terrifies adversaries.

"The word 'genius' gets bandied about a lot in our culture," says bassist Carroll, "but he's a true genius."

A few weeks ago, reedist Victor Goines – who heads jazz studies at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music and plays in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – took Perrillo with him for a brief Mexican tour. Goines could pretty much have his pick of pianists to play with his quartet, his choice saying a great deal about what a far more celebrated musician thinks of Perrillo's work.

"Whether in trio or in solo or in a band, he's so responsive in what he can do ... and he has a certain solidity in the response," says Goines.

"But more than being responsive, he gives you information that you can build on when you solo. He's the kind of piano player that most people like to play with, because there are so many languages he brings to the bandstand."

Working with Goines "was just a wonderful experience all around," says Perrillo. "Certainly he can pick up any saxophone or clarinet and play in any style or genre of jazz and do it with authority.

"To me, he sounds best when he plays with a rhythm section that pushes his envelope a little, because he's got an incredible ear – he can really go into some other places."

Which is precisely what Perrillo loves to do: push everyone, including himself, into less familiar, less comfortable terrain.

How does he do it? With the remarkable rhythmic drive he can achieve, the sheer speed of his thought, the profusion of his ideas and the dynamism of his work at all tempos. Whether playing ballads, blues, bebop or more contemporary musical dialects, Perrillo never lets the intensity of his music flag – every note means something, nothing is tossed off.

But the journey has not been easy for Perrillo.

"I didn't have the privilege of going to (college) – I'm a self-taught guy," says the pianist, who moved to Chicago from his native South Florida in 1990 on the advice of multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan.

"I came here on Ira's recommendation, and I also had a friend here who offered her couch. I came here with $470 in my pocket, and even 24 years ago you couldn't go to New York with that."

Perrillo has been "just trying to do whatever I can to survive" ever since, no easy task in the realm of jazz. But on purely artistic terms he has been quite successful, his reputation earning him a major commission at Millennium Park in 2009, recording dates backing everyone from Von Freeman to Fareed Haque and a part-time position as jazz studies lecturer at DePaul University's School of Music.

"It's been good for me," says Perrillo, referring to teaching. "It forces me to go back and think about things I've learned just empirically by having to support myself as a musician since I was 17. Things I've just learned by being on the bandstand – it's forced me to break it down to more bite-sized chunks, and for me it's been good to do that.

"Because being a self-taught musician, you really don't learn in that way. … When the kids are gifted and hard-working, (teaching) is among the most rewarding things I can think of."

Perhaps one of these days the rest of the world will discover what Perrillo's students and hard-core listeners already know: At 51, Perrillo ranks among the most protean pianists in jazz.

He'll get a chance to prove that again on Saturday night.

Also worth hearing

Patricia Barber: A singular Chicago singer-pianist-songwriter, Barber celebrates the 10th anniversary of Contempo's annual double-bill program featuring jazz and contemporary classical music. She'll be joined by the Ari Hoenig Trio; the concert also will present the Pacifica Quartet. 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; $25; 773-702-2787 or ticketsweb.uchicago.edu

Wallace Roney: The hard-hitting trumpeter, a protégé of Miles Davis, leads his quartet. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $25-$40; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest: The double-bill features Harmonious Wail and the Gonzalo Bergara Quartet. 9 p.m. Friday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

Jason Stein Quartet: The inventive bass clarinetist shares the stage with tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly. 9:30 p.m. Friday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $8; constellation-chicago.com

Dee Alexander: A remarkably chameleonic vocalist, Alexander will take on music of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Nina Simone and Dinah Washington. 8 p.m. Saturday at Governors State University's Center for the Performing Arts, 1 University Parkway, University Park; 708-235-2222 or govst.edu

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Ron Perrillo Quintet

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway

Tickets: $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com