Grazyna Auguscik proves Chopin can swing
April 19, 2016
By Howard Reich
The Frederic Chopin bicentennial inspired major concerts around the world in 2010, but none like the one Chicago jazz singer Grazyna Auguscik offered that July at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
Performing before an enthusiastic audience of 8,500 and sharing the stage with world-class Polish and Chicago musicians, Auguscik applied her distinctly fluid vocal style to some of the most sublimely expressive music ever penned. Yes, everyone knows that Chopin stands as one of the greatest composers to have written for the piano, but Auguscik and friends proved that Chopin’s miniatures can flourish in a jazz environment, as well.
And though Auguscik hardly was the first jazz musician to make that point, she did so with such elegance and authenticity that one hoped she would return to this repertoire.
She will do precisely that Saturday evening, when she appears on the Contempo-Jazz Double Bill, an annual concert that pairs contemporary classical music with jazz performance of comparable stature, at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. Considering how effective Auguscik sounded in 2010, one can only imagine where she has taken this concept.
The work will sound different, says Auguscik, “Because I’ve played the tunes over the years in different (instrumental) combinations. I feel much more comfortable with them.
“I also understand better and I went deeper into the music,” she adds. “I think he’s one of the most powerful and greatest composers.”
Yet not every classical master has penned music that can be transformed so compellingly into jazz syntax. Why do Chopin preludes, etudes, mazurkas and the like sound persuasive in a jazz setting?
“I think of Chopin as a jazz pianist,” says Auguscik. “It’s jazz music, but only without swing feelings. I think it’s very rich and wonderful harmony. … I think it’s jazz.”
In a way, Auguscik has a point. Though Chopin put every note down on paper, most of his piano music conveys an improvisational spirit, as if the master had sat down at the instrument and invented these themes and counter themes on the spot, then riffed on them as a jazz artist would. Because Chopin’s melodies are at once indelible and malleable, they give jazz musicians ample opportunity for both poetic phrasemaking and dramatic transformation.
Not that any of this is easy.
“I think it’s the most difficult and most challenging project in my life,” says Auguscik. “But it’s my homeland. It’s where my heart is.”
That much is obvious from Auguscik’s work with this repertoire, though one hastens to add that she has been aided in this by similarly accomplished instrumentalists. Polish accordionist Jarek Bester, who performed in the Millennium Park concert, returns for the Contempo event, which also will feature the Maniacal 4 Trombone Quartet, a stylistically freewheeling ensemble that presumably will come up with sounds Chopin never anticipated. With keenly sensitive Chicago bassist Matt Ulery completing Auguscik’s ensemble, listeners could encounter new ways of hearing Chopin.
It’s worth noting, too, that a great deal has happened in Auguscik’s life since that landmark Chopin concert of nearly six years ago, most notably the death of her longtime partner Marek Bajson in 2013. Bajson was killed as he stood near his car on the shoulder of Mannheim Road near O’Hare International Airport, when a woman struck his car and then him, according to a Tribune report.
Auguscik was in Warsaw preparing for a major concert when she received the news. She has been trying to rebuild ever since.
“It’s a loss,” says Auguscik, who has been spending a great deal of time commuting between Chicago and Poland, where she performs and visits family.
“I’m working, so that’s the most important thing in my life. … I read some books. For me, it’s more about spiritual things. I think it helps to just think that there is some place where people are happy, and eventually you’re going to go there and join them.
“I think that this is not the end.”
Music, says Auguscik, has sustained her through difficult periods. After Bajson’s death, she moved into a new apartment but couldn’t give up the summer home she shared with him in New Buffalo, Mich., even though she mostly rents it out now.
“It was our place, our house, and it’s really beautiful, and I feel so connected,” she says. “And I can’t sell it. I feel so many emotions.
“Right now I try to put all the puzzles together. It’s not easy. I miss talking to Marek. I miss the conversation a lot. Sometimes you have to make decisions, and nobody really cares about it. You have to just handle it by yourself.
“It’s been already three years. I learned a lot of things.”
Among them that it’s OK to be alone, she says, and that aloneness “doesn’t mean that I’m lonely.”
She has friends, and she has memories.
“Time goes by, and we have to manage, and it will be different,” she says.
“Music always helps.”
Her music especially, as her ever-growing audiences suggest.