When John Campbell moved to New York in 1984, it looked like the end for the finest mainstream piano trio in Chicago–and one of the finest in the country, judging from the raves of visiting horn men. But Campbell returned to Chicago in the summer of ’97, and now a sleek but cozy new piano-and-sushi bar called Lush Life has put his trio’s art on display in a regular weekend gig. It’s a joy to have him back: Like Bill Evans–one of his idols but not his ideal–Campbell makes his hard-won lyricism sound easy. More than ever, he plays with an elegant focus, manifest in both his smart, expansive chords and an almost perfectly efficient balance between line, rhythm, and dynamics. Bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer stayed busy and visible during Campbell’s long absence, but Sill’s roomy sound and pinpoint intonation and Spencer’s bottomless energy will still surprise and enlighten a careful listener. The trio’s marbled complexity, though, arises not from the individual talents of its members but from the length of time they’ve simmered in the same pot. The group formed in the early 70s, when all three were in college, and they sound as comfortable together now as they did in the 80s. Their musical relationship is like one of those nine-lives friendships, where you can get a phone call after two years and pick up pretty much where you left off–even apart, they continued to mature in sync. When they chat between tunes to decide what to play next, digging through the shared repertoire of standards and obscurities they’ve amassed over their long history, it’s a delightful antidote to the prefab, don’t-miss-a-beat sets neoclassicists use to indicate their “professionalism.” Every Thursday through Saturday, 9 PM, Lush Life, 226 E. Ontario; 312-649-5874. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by JAmes Gudeman.