Judy Roberts prepares to say farewell again

As she wound down a recent set at Chambers, in Niles, singer-pianist Judy Roberts leaned into the microphone and delivered what has become her favorite new closing line.

"From Amundsen High School at Foster and Damen, I'm Judy Roberts," she proclaimed, to enthusiastic applause.

But considering that Roberts left her hometown five years ago to re-settle in Phoenix, the declaration of her Chicago roots came as something of a surprise. Hadn't Roberts pretty much sworn off this part of the world, returning here only briefly at summertime, when desert temperatures reached the stratosphere?

"Well, it's all getting more and more poignant," says Roberts, in explaining her still-evolving feelings toward Chicago, where she had built her long career.

"My fan base, we're all getting – dare we say it? – older. And I'm thinking, 'This is where it's really at.' Though I'm still trying to do this tale-of-two cities thing."

Indeed, Roberts will be heading west again following her latest farewell to Chicago, with a season-ending engagement Wednesday through Sunday in the city's top jazz room, the Jazz Showcase. After her final set with her husband, saxophonist Greg Fishman, they'll load her stuff into his car and play some West Coast dates before Fishman returns to Chicago and Roberts to Phoenix.

And that will be the last we hear from one of the best singer-pianists this city has produced until next summer, the forthcoming departure evoking plenty of emotion in both Roberts and Fishman.

"We still don't know how to make the two cities work," acknowledges Roberts, whose husband had moved to Phoenix with her in 2007 but returned here soon after. "I have a beautiful scene happening in Arizona, but I have a beautiful scene – with history – happening here (in Chicago), and the history is starting to have more value. It gets more and more important."

That's obvious just from glancing at Roberts' Chicago tenure here these past few summers, for she has extended the duration of her stay each year. This time was the longest, fully three months of music-making in clubs across the city.

The benefits of this long run was apparent to anyone who caught some of the Roberts-Fishman shows, the musicians digging deeply into old repertoire and finding new songs to play.

During that recent evening at Chambers, Roberts performed solo-piano fantasias on music of Michel Legrand, as well as bebop showpieces with Fishman, the two throwing off the fast-moving lines of "Donna Lee" in unison at a remarkable clip. The high gloss of this playing was matched by its spontaneity and excitement.

"When you start playing together that much, the stuff that's familiar gets pushed to the background," says Fishman. "On Day 2, you're at a fresh level of looking at the material – you pick up where the night before left off. Now it's new stuff that's happening."

More new, in fact, than either Fishman or Roberts could have predicted. On one Sunday night at Chambers, someone in the audience requested the little-known Hoagy Carmichael song "One Morning in May." Fishman and Roberts vaguely recalled part of the tune but not the bridge, so during a break they looked it up on their smart phones, listened to a YouTube clip, memorized it on the spot and performed it during the next set.

"No one knew if we'd get through it," says Fishman. "Everyone was cheering when we finished, and it's turned into a big staple of our repertoire."

That's precisely the kind of musical experience Chicagoans have been missing during Roberts' absence and have embraced during her return.

Fishman says he has noticed changes in Roberts' music – a greater focus on playing the piano as well as a significant boost in her left-hand, bass-line work. He hopes the joy of playing together this summer will induce Roberts to increase her time in Chicago, and he's cautiously optimistic that it will.

"Judy keeps coming back and more and more," he says. "I'm trying to get her to split the time more evenly. Or just get out of here in January.

"But she does have a lot of gigs there (in Arizona), and she's got a whole fan base there.

"But it does seem to be leaning that way (toward more Chicago time). It was a good summer."

Roberts says she will leave here with mixed feelings, rewarded by the music she was able to make and the people she was able to see but pained that she'll be cut off again until next June.

"I really got used to those black parking boxes you have here in Chicago – that was a big hurdle for me, because ... working those has been a challenge," says Roberts, reflecting on the past three months.

"I value smaller places like Katerina's (on West Irving Park Road) even more than ever. Watching a small place persevere is great. And 3160 (a cabaret on North Clark Street), where they're doing it against all odds.

"It restores my faith that people will come out to hear good music."

Even so, the farewells have not been fun.

"My final speeches are real verklempt," she says, using the Yiddish word for emotionally choked up. "I'm thinking about saying goodbye to people, and everyone is crying.

"It's heartwarming and bittersweet.

"The bittersweet factor is on the rise."

Judy Roberts leads her trio, plus saxophonist Greg Fishman, at 8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.

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

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter@howardreich

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