Packin' 'Em in Jazz on the Square Hits Right Notes with Chicago-Area Musicians

Article excerpt

Byline: Leah A. Zeldes Daily Herald Correspondent

It's a chilly Thursday night in Woodstock, but Pirro's Ristorante on Woodstock Square is packed. The crowd ranges from groups of women to families to 20-something dating couples. Some are focused on the Italian food on their plates, but more are intent on the stage, where mellow-voiced vocalist Judith Honesty is fronting an up-tempo "All of Me."

This is Jazz on the Square, a weekly jam session that's pulling musicians from all over the Chicago area. The jazz jam is open to anyone who cares to show up and play.

"It's such a blast," says saxophonist Chris Gilmer of Woodstock, 18, between sets. "I'm learning a lot. I feel really lucky."

Her alto sax jives with veteran saxophonist Jim Hecht's tenor, forming a musical bridge between two people who seem otherwise far apart. Gilmer, now a business student at McHenry Community College, plans to study acupuncture at the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine. Hecht, who learned to play sax in band class at Woodstock High, has been practicing law in Woodstock for 40 years.

"We were really surprised that it took off so quickly," says Erin Denk, a Jazz on the Square organizer. "The young people who come here are thrilled to have the opportunity to play. There's definitely a lot of people here who like jazz."

Jazz on the Square started in the summer, when Denk, her husband, guitarist Billy Denk, Hecht and two other Woodstock residents - Bob Honesty and Randy Robinson - acted on their yen for live jazz in the town.

"There really hadn't been any place for that," she says.

They approached Terry and Mary Pirro, owners of Pirro's, who signed on. Terry Pirro spent a dozen years traveling as a sound engineer for ABC and other networks, and he's very particular about the sounds on his stage.

"The purpose of Jazz on the Square," Erin Denk says, "is to promote appreciation and understanding of live performances of jazz music and to increase participation in the art of making jazz music in the community."

The event also raises money for local charities, with whom the musicians share the tip jar.

On this particular Thursday, only a few add-ons supplement the house band. Gabe Hammer of the rock band Sweet Pick sits in on drums for the first set and then goes off to another gig. Wauconda singer Heather Moran drops in to sing "Bye Bye Blackbird" and a few other numbers between dates of her "Back to Bachrach" show. Billy Denk, on guitar, tries to make up for the absent bass player, who had another job.

Veteran local drummer Johnny Weber is the only one of the house- band members who's a full-time musician. In his day job, keyboardist Dave Childress manages a Crystal Lake health-food store. Woodstock High grad Jeremy Montoto, who's usually on bass, works as field manager for a paintball field in Hampshire. Vocalist Judith Honesty, who commutes out from Chicago each week, divides her time between singing and consulting on organizational development.

On this night the group sticks mainly to jazz standards, but the musical styles vary week-to-week depending on who shows up. Usually things stay in the realms of swing, bop, cool jazz and Latin jazz, but sometimes jazz funk, fusion and blues creep into the mix.

"There's a different sound every week," Moran says. "There was a night when somebody showed up with a flugelhorn. I really like the unexpected part of it."

Pirro, pouring an enchanting chocolate port at the bar between bouts of fussing over his sound equipment, notes that the players typically range from good to excellent. Just about everybody talking about the event mentioned the virtuosity of Crystal Lake sax player Phil Ciancio, a frequent drop-in. When he plays, Pirro says, "he pretty much makes somebody cry every time."

"It's kind of wild to be with these guys," Honesty says. "Sometimes you don't know anyone, and you have one song in common that you all know. …