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Can Skokie swing?

Can Skokie swing?

Or, to be more specific, can a somewhat tired suburban downtown rejuvenate itself with jazz?

The signs looked encouraging last week, when the Skokie Theatre -- a former neighborhood movie house -- launched its first official season as a plushly refurbished concert hall.

With hardly a spare seat to be found Saturday night, singer-pianist Freddy Cole buoyantly led his quartet in a bluesy, ultrahip brand of musicmaking one does not automatically associate with the northern suburb.

Yet once Cole began to sing -- his easy-breezy phrases subtly recalling the work of his more famous brother, the immortal Nat "King" Cole -- Skokie became a musically enticing place indeed. And it wasn't just Freddy Cole's charms that gave the evening its romantic glow.

More important, the theater sounds almost as good as it looks, no small feat, considering that the place has undergone a Cinderella-like transformation from its earlier incarnation as a weather-beaten, third-run cinema. At night, the neon-lit, Art Deco marquee promises glamour inside, and the Skokie Theatre delivers it. With its exposed-brick walls, elegantly designed lighting and birch-veneer acoustic panels, the theater suggests an urban oasis in the midst of suburbia.

Because it's so small, seating just 148, the auditorium envelops its audience. And though the narrow, shoe-box shape is quite unusual for a concert setting, one quickly forgets that fact, thanks to the comparatively high ceiling and the gentle rake of the seating. The sightlines are virtually faultless.

None of this would amount to much, however, if the place didn't sound well. The first two headliners to play the premiere season underscored the acoustical assets of the room, though the sound engineers clearly still are fine-tuning the theater's amplification.

Cole and his quartet sounded their best when they were playing at a hush. This room is so live and responsive that even the most whispered musicmaking has heft and body to it. However, when the Cole quartet performed more forcefully, it was clear that the room's engineers were giving the musicians too much juice. A space this small needs hardly any amplification at all, and one suspects that a chief selling point for the Skokie Theatre will be the naturalness of its sound -- once the technicians learn to harness it.

On Thursday evening, the room sounded even better, when pianist Amina Figarova led an instrumental sextet in original, meticulously composed works. The luminosity of tone and delicacy of nuance that the theater conveyed during Figarova's solos were unforgettable.

When the entire sextet played, one was struck by the vibrancy of each instrumental line, as flute, trumpet and tenor saxophone sang in pristine counterpoint.

Even in Figarova's show, however, amplification levels sometimes exceeded the needs of the room. The sooner the engineers learn to make the space sound as if no microphones are being used at all, the better.

Howard Reich is a Tribune arts critic. Originally published May 7, 2007.

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