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.