In his prime--that is, back in his halcyon days as a septuagenarian-- you could hardly find a more delightful, slyly rambunctious jazz presence than Claude "Fiddler" Williams. You could hardly find any recordings by him, either, which left audiences largely unprepared for his impish high spirits, but that's changed with the release of several CDs in the last five years. In the 30s, inspired by violinist Joe Venuti, Williams gave up a good gig as Count Basie's guitarist, moved to Kansas City to concentrate on the violin, and didn't reemerge on the national scene until the early 70s, when he joined the company of great swing pianist Jay McShann. Like Venuti's, Williams's concept of the instrument has more to do with rural folk-fiddle roots than with the violin's concert-hall pedigree, and intonation sometimes takes a backseat to his leaping melody lines and seat-of-the-pants swing. But where those slightly sour notes might sound wrong played by a different musician, coming from Williams they take on added emotional resonance. Based on the constant stream of bright ideas, fast-fingered filigrees, and sizzling rhythms that leap from his bow, it's hard to believe the guy's now 90--one of only seven or eight active jazz musicians who first recorded in the Roaring 20s. Williams still sings a little too, in a lilting voice that despite its lightness has the weight of nearly all of jazz history behind it. In Chicago, Williams will get rousing support from bassist Eddie de Haas and drummer Jerry Steinhilber, guitarist Frank Portolese, and on Friday saxist Eric Schneider, whose swing credentials make him a perfect sparring partner for the Fiddler. (Saturday the saxist is Brian Sjoerdinga.) But any hoped-for face-off with Chicago's own grand old violinist, Johnny Frigo, won't materialize: Frigo broke his arm a few weeks ago and won't be playing until late summer at the earliest. Friday, 9 PM, and Saturday, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Russ Dantzler.