Baby Jane Dexter named her new show Making Every Moment Count well in advance of September 11–and though the sentiment has certainly gained new currency in the wake of that morning’s terrible events, in all likelihood the title reflects her response to a more personal experience of survival and regeneration. A star on New York’s bustling cabaret scene in the 1970s, Dexter dropped out for a decade to wrestle with depression, a turbulent relationship, professional uncertainty, and the loss of many friends to AIDS. One of those friends, film historian Vito Russo, nudged her back into performing, and ten years ago she jump-started her career. Her huge, husky voice (which gathers new power just when it sounds like it’s about to crack), hefty build, imposing presence, and fusion of cabaret and gritty blues invite comparisons to Sarah Vaughan, Janis Joplin, Etta James, Bonnie Bramlett, Judy Henske, and Mama Cass; but Dexter puts her own stamp on everything she sings, and her jolly interplay with the audience is equally distinctive. In this week’s engagement–her first Chicago gig in two and a half years and her long delayed Davenport’s debut–she and her superb pianist, Ross Patterson, display their delight in juxtaposing vintage and (more or less) modern material: the set list includes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” Randy Newman’s “Guilty,” a big-mama blues take on Lieber and Stoller’s “Love Potion Number Nine,” a boogie-woogie styling of “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” and slow, ruminative renditions of the Hoagy Carmichael classic “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” Abbey Lincoln’s haunting “Throw It Away,” and Boudleaux Bryant’s country-rock standard “Love Hurts.” Ballads are Dexter’s forte: she infuses them with a passionate determination, while her raw, deep voice mitigates the maudlin sentimentality that might hamper a sweeter singer. Wednesday, October 3, through Friday, October 5, 8 PM, and Saturday, October 6, 8 and 10 PM, Davenport’s Piano Bar & Cabaret, 1383 N. Milwaukee; 773-278-1830.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Mosher.