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[October 01, 2010]
Chicago Tribune Howard Reich column
Oct 01, 2010 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Father-daughter piano duos are not exactly plentiful in jazz, but there's one in Chicago that commands particular interest.
Even on his own, the mighty Willie Pickens often sounds like two keyboardists fighting over the same 88 keys. When daughter Bethany Pickens sits down at the piano nearby, his ideas sound that much bigger -- as do hers.
So for piano-philes, Saturday night's concert featuring both Pickenses at the Fine Arts Building, on South Michigan Avenue, promises a great deal of keyboard action.
"I try to bring the fire, and my dad does that all the time," says Bethany Pickens, who had the good fortune of growing up under the influence of one Chicago's most formidable pianists.
"It's an awesome experience to hear him play with his energy ... and have that energy transferred to me," she adds. "It's indescribable." For the elder Pickens, too, the effect is like none other he has experienced in a jazz career spanning more than half a century -- and including a celebrated period touring the globe with master drummer Elvin Jones.
Performing with his daughter, says Willie Pickens, is "a wonderful feeling ... because she has come into her own as a pianist.
"When she was coming up, my wife, Irma, used to hear her practice, and Bethany would maybe play a few licks of mine.
"And Irma would say, 'Bethany, get off that! I hear your father there. Play something of your own!'" That's the central mission of any jazz musician, yet it cannot have been easy for the younger Pickens to find her voice as a pianist outside of her father's art. All the more because of the sheer muscularity of Pickens' pianism, which tends to make almost everything around it sound small.
Even so, Bethany Pickens always regarded her father's model less as a threat and more as a motivator, she says.
"Hearing that level of excellence on a daily basis set the bar pretty high," she says. "And it made me realize the amount of work that was involved. That has been the strongest impact of all this -- just being in his presence all the time. His tenacity and integrity and professionalism -- all those things seeped in." Though the Pickenses have released select tracks on past recordings, they have yet to release an entire CD documenting their collaborations, though that seems inevitable.
Bethany Pickens' career as a pianist, however, was not exactly preordained, even though she was using coat hangers as drumsticks when she was a toddler.
"We discovered her having musical talent when she was very young, but I wanted her to have a normal childhood of enjoying herself," says Irma Pickens, who encouraged her daughter to play sports and otherwise immerse herself in non-musical activities.
"I didn't want her to end up being Judy Garland.
"But she made the decision," adds Irma Pickens. "When she was 15, she came to us -- she was on the tennis team at school -- and she said, 'I want to be a musician.' We didn't push her." Since then, the younger Pickens has become a noteworthy presence in Chicago jazz, never more than in August, when she presided over an evening-length, centennial tribute to Mary Lou Williams in Millennium Park.
Both her parents were in the audience on that historic night, with Bethany Pickens playing solo, conducting big-band scores by Williams and leading the world premiere of a piano-and-orchestra piece by Amina Claudine Myers.
Watching that show, "all our buttons popped off our clothes," says Irma Pickens, with a laugh.
Perhaps that will happen again Saturday night.
Also worth catching Chris Potter. The brilliant saxophonist ranks among the most adventurous and accomplished musicians of the under-40 generation. He'll lead a trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Marcus Gilmore. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshow case.com Chicago Gypsy Jazz Festival. The Django Reinhardt centennial celebration continues, with guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli leading his Swing Gitan band in the 8th annual Chicago Gypsy Jazz Festival. They'll be joined on both nights by Tucson violinist Nick Coventry; on Friday night only, Chicago tenor saxophonist Pat Mallinger will augment the band. The event also will mark the release of Swing Gitan's newest CD, "Sweet Home" (Ponticelli Music). 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday; at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz .com Dudley Owens. An emerging Chicago saxophonist with a big sound and a serious approach, Owens exudes potential with every phrase. He'll lead a quartet. 5 to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com Charlie Haden. It's difficult to overstate bassist Haden's stature in jazz, starting with his groundbreaking collaborations with Ornette Coleman in 1959. Haden's subsequent work leading the Liberation Music Orchestra and partnerships with pianists as far-flung as Keith Jarrett and Gonzalo Rubalcaba barely hint at the breadth of his work. For this engagement, he'll lead Quartet West. 8 p.m. Saturday; at Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville; $45-$55; 630-637-7469 Art Hoyle. How long the Hyde Park Jazz Society's Sunday-night scene at Room 43 can last -- in light of a licensing dispute with the city -- remains to be seen, so listeners should enjoy it while they can. Octogenarian trumpeter Art Hoyle will front a quintet. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday; at Room 43, 1043 E. 43rd St.; visit hydeparkjazzsociety.org To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune .com/reich.
firstname.lastname@example.org Willie and Bethany Pickens When: 7 p.m. Saturday Where: Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 825 Price: $20; 312-291-0291 or pianofortefoundation.org To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to
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