A rosy new stage for Sugar Blue

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Sugar Blue

Chicago blues master Sugar Blue and his wife Ilaria Lantieri. (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune / March 26, 2013)

These are very sweet days for Sugar Blue.

In a few months, he'll be a father once more, his wife and bass player Ilaria Lantieri expecting their first child together in late May or early June.

In the meantime, the two — who own a home in Memphis, Tenn., but spend most of their time touring the country in their camper or jetting elsewhere around the world — are putting down deeper roots in Chicago. Having rented out the Memphis place, they're living in the camper while trying to find a Chicago apartment.

This has been a boon to local blues fans, for Blue last month began Wednesday night engagements at Rosa's Lounge, where he held a similar spot for years starting in the mid-1980s. Better still, it's an "unplugged" session that's inspiring Blue to pursue music he's thoroughly qualified to explore: jazz. Though blues fans may not realize it, Blue grew up immersed in the music.

His mother had been a dancer at the Apollo Theater in New York's Harlem neighborhood and a club owner there, and his father befriended uncounted jazzmen. As a result, Blue — who was born James Whiting — grew up in the presence of jazz giants such as Dexter Gordon and, as a self-taught harmonica virtuoso, came under the influence of saxophonists Buddy Tate and Paul Quinichette (both of the Count Basie band), guitarist Tiny Grimes, and others. While living in Paris in the late 1970s, Blue worked alongside no less than vibist Lionel Hampton and saxophonists Stan Getz and Steve Lacy.

The man can play more than 12-bar blues, in other words, and he believes he's stretching out those skills during the "unplugged" sessions at Rosa's.

"I get a chance to experiment and play around and do some jazz ballads and stuff like that, which I kind of like," says Blue.

"I do some Billie Holiday tunes — I've always been a big fan of Billie — a few Louis Jordan tunes, things that people don't do all the time, like 'Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying.'

"We're just having a good time. I'm trying to expand the realm of music that I play in."

In truth, Blue never has been constricted stylistically, his music long combining the visceral power of blues expression with the technical acuity and harmonic sophistication of jazz. It's just that when he's unplugged, you can hear the intricacies of his best work. Moreover, the sonic exposure makes Blue work a little harder, relying less on volume and more on complexity. It's a setting that encourages risk-taking, which Blue seems eager to do.

"To me, if you don't experiment and try some things new, you get stale," he says. "I might be an old cookie but don't want to be a stale cookie."

Not that old, actually, for Blue looks, acts and sounds a lot younger than his 63 years, his sets as fiery as they were long ago. His touring schedule, too, is not for the tired or faint-of-heart, Blue driving the camper — with his wife and unborn child — to engagements coast to coast.

But both he and Lantieri realize, however, that life is changing for them, at least for a while.

"I'm sitting down while I'm playing — the bass gets heavier and heavier by the minute," Lantieri says. "We'll see how long I can keep playing. I'll play it by ear, seeing how I do. As I get rounder and bigger, I'll probably be more fatigued."

Lantieri ought to know. She's also a medical doctor. "Probably the last couple of weeks I won't be on the road. … I'll be taking a break. But I'll be back on the road right after the baby is born," with an upcoming European tour in August. "We're working on fixing up the camper for the baby," she adds. "He's going to be a traveling baby — he's the son of two gypsies."

Or, as Blue puts it: "It's going to be the gypsy blues crew. It's going to be wonderful. A baby should be a part of your life, not stuck in some nanny's arms somewhere. I want him to grow up with me, doing what I do, and I think the experience will be very valuable."

Certainly it will be unusual, and, in a way, the journey already has begun. Blue plays harmonica for their son every morning, and "it's the only time when he stops kicking around," Lantieri reports.

Which means perhaps he will be born with perfect pitch.

"Or half deaf," Lantieri quips.

Blue, who has a 21-year-old daughter who lives in France, sees the impending birth of his son as a kind of new beginning.

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