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(GMA Records 1724-6 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/16/2005)
For me, some of the most interesting and enjoyable music arises when disparate styles or cultures mix in unexpectedly successful ways. This review series has certainly featured more than its share of such musical confluences. This week, we have yet another, though the music's interest comes as much from the artist's originality as from the mixture of cultures. It's the newest CD from Polish-born vocalist Grazyna Auguscik, called The Light.
Grazyna Auguscik's musical career began in Europe, but she came to the US to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating in 1992. She moved to Chicago in 1994, and has been a part of the jazz scene in the Windy City since then, collaborating with artists including Michael and Randy Brecker, jazz guitarist Jim Hall, John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood, and many others. She has also been releasing a steady stream of independent CDs on her own GMA label since 1996. This is her tenth, counting a CD she released in Poland in 1989.
Ms. Auguscik's music has always been on the edge of jazz, though she does perform more the straight-ahead varieties of the genre. But on this CD, she spans a very wide range, both in terms of the material and the stylistic and instrumental elements that went into the recording. In fact, she includes a note in the CD's packaging addressing herself to her jazz fans saying "I stay true to myself and follow my heart when I work, but at the same time, I hope the music clicks for you," obviously realizing that those looking for a recording by a classic-style jazz singer are not going to find it here. Instead, the CD is a very creative blend of sonic atmospherics, with ethereal string arrangements, emphasizing cellos, with contemporary-sounding percussion loops, in performances of material ranging from an old Donny Hathaway hit, to Brazilian pieces, a song from Poland, along with a tune by Billie Holiday and one by Sixties folk-singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. Adding to the cross-cultural mixture is the presence of a number of Swedish musicians who form the backbone of this recording, which was made partly in Sweden and partly in Chicago.
Ms. Auguscik is a versatile singer, who like fellow Polish fusion vocalist Urszula Dudziak, is a skilled improviser and can do impressive wordless vocals. But this CD is dominated by songs with lyrics in English, Polish and a little Portuguese. There is a fair amount of Brazilian influence, with songs by Brazilian composers Edu Lobo, Baden Powell and Egberto Gismonti. But the performance of those songs is quite distinctive.
Ms. Auguscik's principal collaborator on the CD is Swedish keyboard man Stefan Pettersson who largely helped sculpt the arrangements and sonic treatment. The players on the CD also include John McLean and David Onderdonk on guitars, plus a pair of Swedish cellists who are apparently overdubbed some to create the brooding string arrangements. They are a nice supplement to Ms. Auguscik's airy, but contemplative alto vocals. The CD at times can be reminiscent of the work of another Chicago-based jazz singer who has ventured into musically eclectic territory, Patricia Barber, and indeed Ms. Auguscik includes one of Ms. Barber's compositions.
But the CD opens with the Buffy Saint-Marie song Until It's Time for You to Go, which was also recorded by Roberta Flack. It was that performance that inspired Ms. Auguscik, going back to when she first heard it in Poland. The arrangement resembles neither Flack nor Sainte-Marie, and instead blazes new territory, with the melancholy string arrangement, the techno-inspired rhythm loop effects, and Ms. Auguscik's wonderful vocals. <<>>
By origin, the most jazz-oriented song ought to be the track Don't Explain, co-written by the great jazz singer Billie Holiday. But again, Ms. Auguscik explores an entirely different musical realm, combining the strings with the techno-sounding rhythmic figure, to create a fascinating, unusual and ultimately satisfying performance. <<>>
One of two pieces with wordless vocals is Chorado, which hints at Brazilian influence while continuing the engagingly contemplative atmosphere. <<>>
Ms. Auguscik writes in her CD notes about hearing soul singer Donny Hathaway while growing up in Poland, being especially attracted to his live album, which included the old song For All We Know. It is this piece that Ms. Auguscik weaves into perhaps the CD's most striking track, hinting at the soul-influence, while the cellos give an almost funereal atmosphere, punctuated by the sequenced rhythm and the comments of a plaintive-sounding soprano sax played by Thomas Gustaffson. <<>>
One can draw a parallel between Ms. Auguscik and her fellow Chicago jazz vocal explorer Patricia Barber, on this CD's version of If I Were Blue, from Ms. Barber's CD Verse. While the mood of Ms. Barber's song is maintained, Ms. Auguscik and company create a very different but no less captivating sonic texture. <<>>
Ms. Auguscik shares vocal duties with Brazilian guitarist and singer Paulinho Garcia on the track Apelo, by Baden Powell, which Ms. Auguscik says has become a popular song in Poland. She sings in a Polish translation while Garcia, who she said first introduced her to Brazilian music sings in the original Portuguese. It's done in a classic bossa nova style, which is something of a departure from the very eclectic treatments of the other songs on the CD. <<>>
Also in Polish is the closing piece Pray, or Molitwa. The lyrics were written by a Polish film director, Magdalena Piekorz, and set to music by Ms. Auguscik. Lyrically, it's basically a lament, and musically vaguely unsettling in sound, with Ms. Auguscik's plaintive vocals, the atmospheric musical setting, and the creepy sound of whispered voices in the background. <<>>
On her CD The Light, Grazyna Auguscik has created a fascinating, and often striking new recording that combines her subtle, sometimes plaintive, slightly exotic but always impressive vocals, with some very creative treatments of songs ranging from the familiar to the new. Some well-known songs are performed in ways you have never heard them done, while the newer material is just as fascinating. The result is an album that is difficult to describe but an ear-grabber from beginning to end.
Our grade for sound quality is a definite "A." The sonic atmospheres that give the CD its distinctive quality are deftly executed. On a good stereo system, one can be enveloped by the auditory pastels of the recording, and there is also a decent dynamic range. Keyboard man and arranger Stefan Pettersson also did the mix together with Ms. Auguscik.
Sometimes combining unrelated styles can be little more than a novelty. Grazyna Auguscik new CD The Light is a stellar example of imaginative eclecticism that creates a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
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