One of the things we know for sure, if more musicians had as much fun as Judy Roberts does playing for an audience, jazz would be a lot more popular. This energetic Chicago pianist, vocalist and singer of scat is a bundle of irrepressible energy with a big Tucson fan base.
Roberts’ musical chops and decades in the business have earned her several Grammy nominations, as well as first-place awards, in jazz polls by Downbeat and Playboy magazines. Her discography lists more than 20 albums.
She had a popular jazz hit with “Señor Blues,” based on the Horace Silver tune. Her rapid-fire delivery of the lyrics to Dave Frishberg’s “My Attorney Bernie” is a total hoot.
But most amazing is how it is impossible not to like this straight-ahead jazz entertainer. Even a world-class grump would finally have to lighten up in her presence because Roberts would just keep on playing her sunny songs filled with dazzling virtuosity until she got a grin.
The Los Angeles Times said it more simply. “At the piano (Roberts) smiles and her joy is obvious. She is simply a woman in love with her work.”
This weekend Roberts returns to the Baked Apple in company with her tenor sax-playing husband Greg Fishman, for a full-blown concert in St. Philip’s Plaza, presented by the Tucson Jazz Society. They will be joined onstage by Tucson’s own tenor colossus, Brice Winston. The possibility of some saxophone shoot-outs are ample.
For Roberts’ many fans here, the concert has been a long time coming.
“Back in the ’80s I played a lot in Tucson, at the Doubletree Inn,” says Roberts on the phone from Phoenix. “That’s where I met Yvonne (Ervin, former executive director of the Tucson Jazz Society) who invited me to be in the first TJS Prima Vera celebration of women in jazz.
“After Yvonne left TJS, it just wasn’t the same there anymore. But I’ve always loved Tucson. My sister Hallie Loewy lives there. She’s a massage therapist.
“Greg loves it there. He has some students there and always says we picked the wrong city to move to.”
Last year Roberts and Fishman moved permanently from Chicago to Phoenix, where she has wintered now and then over the years. It was during those Phoenix winters that she would jump down Interstate10 for sisterly visits here and a string of very hot club dates, which were always packed.
“We had some incredibly successful shows at the Old Pueblo Grille,” Roberts remembers. Those were in more recent times. What kept eluding Roberts was a return to TJS’ big stage events like the Prima Vera showcase. Now she is coming back to town and expectations are high.
Roberts simply has the knack for engaging an audience and holding everyone’s attention. She says it all begins with the musicians.
“Communication is all about sharing. So the first thing I do is catch the eye of the other band members. When that happens and we are all communicating with each other, the audience instantly feels that, which makes the audience light up.” Roberts makes it sound so easy.
Choosing the right songs is also important. She begins with the Great American Songbook.
“That’s where the good stuff is,” Roberts insists. From there she adds bebop tunes (often with a scat line), Latin, blues and soulful ballads, stringing together play lists that stretch from “Route 66″ to “Take the A Train,” from “A Night In Tunisia” to “What A Difference A Day Makes.”
For sure, Roberts will spend her evening in Tucson slinging notes in all directions. But the one thing you can count on, she will be loving every minute of it.
IF YOU GO
What: Judy Roberts and Greg Fishman in concert with Brice Winston
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: St. Philip’s Plaza, 4280 N. Campbell Ave., at East River Road
Price: $20 general admission, $15 members, $10 students
Info: 903-1265, www.tucsonjazz.org