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A grand weekend for jazz singing

Howard Reich

4:55 PM CST, March 7, 2013

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This weekend could be one for the record books, with an extraordinary confluence of major vocalists converging on our stages.

Though they span a wide stylistic swath – from blues to jazz to classic pop and beyond – the level of singing they represent makes any one of their performances a signal event. Put them together on the calendar, however, and you have what amounts to a vocal mini-festival, albeit one that no single impresario planned. Indeed, it would have taken a promoter with uncanny vision, clout and luck to line up the stars precisely this way.

For starters, Chicagoan Dee Alexander finds herself increasingly in demand around the world, the singer commuting to Europe regularly to satisfy a growing global audience. Her performances in Poland and across the Continent have won critical and popular acclaim, particularly for her jazz-based reinterpretations of music of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. And next summer, she'll perform at the Newport Jazz Festival on a marquee that also will feature Natalie Cole, Freddy Cole and Gregory Porter.

Alexander remains quite busy around her hometown, as well, even though – remarkably – she still holds a day job as an information services supervisor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Despite all her musical activities, the chance to hear her in the city's top jazz listening room – the Jazz Showcase – will be seized upon by anyone who values jazz singing at its most inventive.

Alexander leads a quartet at 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$30; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

Perhaps no female blues singer holds more promise – both as soloist and as torch-bearer for the genre – than Chicagoan Shemekia Copeland. Nominated for Best Blues Album at this year's Grammy Awards, she lost out to Dr. John, which was less a reflection of the power of her work than the Grammys' knack for honoring artists with the greatest name recognition. Even so, Copeland's "33 1/3" made tremendous musical impact. As its title suggests, it harkened back to an earlier era and more devout brand of blues singing, even as Copeland's original lyrics pushed boldly forward in addressing contemporary, oft-feminist themes.

As vocalist, Copeland brings to the stage the fervor of one of her great mentors, Koko Taylor, but also a depth of sound that is uniquely hers. Blues singing can be more than just screaming, more than just rock 'n' clichés, Copeland seems to be saying, her respect for the genre's history apparent in every phrase she sings.

In part, this may owe to her lineage: She's the daughter of the late Texas bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland, and real blues have been stamped on her DNA. Her desire to build on the foundations of the blues greats who preceded her has been carefully thought out.

"Why is the blues marginal?" she asked me – rhetorically – in 2011. "Because in America, everything is about what's new, what's new. They don't respect old people, they don't respect anything old. And it irritates me when I go to other places (such as Europe) and I see how they treat things, and how much they respect things."

Copeland respects the blues, even as she's refreshing them. Like the aforementioned Alexander, Copeland finds herself constantly in motion, so her appearance this weekend provides a rare opportunity to hear her singing to her hometown fans.

Copeland will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; $22-$42; 847-492-8860 or evanstonspace.com

Singer Audra McDonald may offer a somewhat more reserved manner than either Copeland or Alexander, but the smoldering intensity of her singing is as hard to miss as it is difficult to resist. Forget, for a moment, her five Tony Awards, two Grammys and other pieces of hardware. More important, McDonald sings with equal ardor in a surprising range of repertoire, from the Great American Songbook to contemporary classical music to her recent work in the "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," a Broadway-style re-invention of the quintessential American opera.

In her visit to the Chicago area, though, McDonald won't be surrounded by such lavish production values. Instead, she'll appear in a far more intimate context, singing with only piano accompaniment at Dominican University in River Forest. Though the concert will unfold as part of the school's 33d Trustee Benefit Concert & Gala, the public is invited to attend just the concert (and skip the reception and dinner that follow).

Here's a chance to hear a major interpreter of 20th and 21st century American song at close range.

McDonald performs at 5 p.m. Saturday at Dominican University's Lund Auditorium, 7900 W. Division St., River Forest; starting at $25; 708-488-5000 or dom.edu/benefit

Finally, Chicago happens to be home to many fine vocalists and top actors, but the two gifts do not often coincide in the work of a single cabaret artist. Suzanne Petri happens to be the exception that proves the rule, her work at once dramatically penetrating and musically evocative. She proved the point again a few years ago, when she sang a gripping homage to Marlene Dietrich during a winter cabaret show at Millennium Park.

Prowling the stage of the glass-enclosed Pritzker Pavilion, Petri somehow found new ways of conceiving such Dietrich standards as "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have," "Lili Marlene" and "Falling in Love Again."

Now she's performing "A Little Touch of Coward in the Night," her exploration of the wise-and-witty songs of Noel Coward. Considering the hyper-literate nature of Coward's lyrics, this evening should give Petri a great deal to sink her teeth into.

Petri's "A Little Touch of Coward in the Night" plays at 8 p.m. Fridays through March 22 at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $20 plus two-drink minimum; 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com

Also worth hearing:

A high-powered double-bill will feature guitarist John Moulder leading a quartet at 5, 6 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday ($10-$15); and trumpeter Brian Lynch leading a quartet starting at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday ($15); at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com.

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

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich