Several years ago, while traveling in central Italy, I met a rambunctious American jazz promoter who asked me, out of the clear blue, who I considered “the best conga-drum player in the whole goddamn world.” He didn’t ask for my favorite player, but rather for the best–retracting the question from the realm of opinion and turning it into something of a test–and when I gave the name of Giovanni Hidalgo, my new acquaintance exploded like I’d just won Final Jeopardy. For those who’ve had the chance to hear Hidalgo’s potent mix of Afro-Cuban rhythms and the percussion colors of his native Puerto Rico, there really isn’t much debate. And the opportunities abound: Hidalgo has recorded with musicians ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to McCoy Tyner to Paul Simon to Mickey Hart (on Planet Drum); he’s also made three albums of his own, on which he has consistently sought to broaden the scope and appeal of his music. But the acid test of Hidalgo’s prowess is seeing his stage work, where you can fully appreciate the subtle lightning of his technique: speed, strength, grace, and precision in a virtuosic ballet. What’s more, Hidalgo is also a top-notch jazz improviser. Especially in concert, he can create solos that both spin your head and tell a story, which puts him into a category with a select echelon of pure jazz drummers (Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones–you get the idea). Hidalgo headlines the Thunder Drums Grand Tour, a cavalcade of Latin jazz stars that includes Changuito (known for his work with the Cuban powerhouse Los Van Van), who helped Hidalgo develop his astounding technique; Tata Guines, a mandarin master of the Cuban drum tradition whom Hidalgo cites as a major influence; and the Batacumbele All-Stars, which reunites members of the innovative salsa band cofounded by Hidalgo in 1980. Saturday, 8 PM, K-Dron Touristic Club, 3336 N. Milwaukee. Friday at 7 PM the three drummers will preside over a Latin percussion clinic at Disco City Records, 2630 N. Milwaukee. 773-235-4088 or 773-486-1495. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of Giovanni Hidalgo.