Johnny Frigo | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Johnny Frigo 

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The last time I heard violinist Johnny Frigo, I had to face the fact that his age is finally starting to catch up with him: every now and then a note failed to sing out perfectly in tune, and on double- and triple-time passages he sometimes dropped a stitch. In other words, at 84, the Chicago native has slipped from astonishing to merely marvelous. He remains the greatest living exponent of swing-era violin, indebted to the glistening, rococo phrases of Stephane Grappelli and the rough-hewn lyricism of Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith. And though he's lost a little of his spring, that's only in his fingers; the deadpan humor in his solos and between-song commentary can still elicit genuine guffaws and much-deserved groans. (Frigo broke into the big time playing bass fiddle with the dance orchestra led by Chico Marx.) He doesn't do much songwriting these days, but he's earned the right to rest on his laurels there. Two of his tunes have already proved their appeal across half a century--the rollicking "I Told You I Love You, Now Get Out" and the smoky "Detour Ahead," which has been covered by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and even Cybill Shepherd, who sang it on the 80s TV show Moonlighting. Frigo's showmanship, commitment to his craft, and instant-recall command of his long history give his performances a surprising electricity: even when he's just horsing around, unearthing bits as old as dirt, the air around him seems to crackle. And on a ballad he can still break hearts, his surging, curlicued playing as sweet as rain. Frigo will lead a quartet featuring his longtime alter ego, pianist Joe Vito. Saturday, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552. NEIL TESSER


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