Jazz took root in Poland long ago – even before World War II – and the country has prized it ever since.
If the music lived underground in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union considered it "decadent," Polish listeners – and their brethren elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain – knew that jazz signified freedom and surreptitiously treasured it.
To this day, jazz flourishes in Polish culture, and the proof was there to see and hear Monday night at the Chopin Theatre, where the 14th annual All Souls Jazz Festival cast a spotlight on Polish jazz musicians (and others) from both sides of the Atlantic.
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No other music festival in Chicago feels quite like the All Souls event, which features multiple bands on upstairs and downstairs stages of the Chopin Theatre. As listeners flow from one performance room to another, they pause to talk, sip beverages, munch on food and otherwise intermingle. Music and conversation intertwine at the All Souls Jazz Festival, and a single language predominates: Polish. If you didn't know better, you'd swear you were in a Krakow café.
Though the music-making ranged from inspired art to work decidedly more mundane, the best performers reminded listeners of the distinctive qualities of Polish jazz.
No band proved more effective than the Antykwariat Jazz Quintet, an ensemble of expat Polish musicians that thrived in Europe in the 1980s and re-emerged in Chicago – in somewhat altered form – in 2006. Playing original scores and familiar repertoire, Antykwariat epitomized the high lyricism of Polish music, as expressed through contemporary jazz vocabularies.
Flutist Mieczyslaw Wolny stood at the center of the group's musical identity, his translucent tone, long-lined melodies and delicately embellished phrases equally alluring in ballads and uptempo fare. With bracing harmonic support from keyboardist Slawomir Bielawiec and soaring lines from guitarist Jan Zienko, the quintet reaffirmed that substantive jazz improvisation and utterly accessible melody making are not mutually exclusive.
That much was evident in a ballad reading of music from Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" penned by the revered Polish jazz composer Krzysztof Komeda. Antykwariat has made something of a signature of this work, and the musicians' slow-burn crescendos and complex but tautly controlled solos said a lot about the integrity of their work. This is a band that doesn't need to shout its achievements; it trusts listeners to recognize the subtleties of its music.
The Polish guitarist Jarek Smietana also represented a high point in the festival's offerings, his sleekly drawn phrases and not-a-wasted-note solos ranking him among the better European jazz guitarists. Like many Polish musicians, he gravitated to music of Chopin, taking on one of the master's most celebrated melodies, the main theme of the Etude in E Major (which classic-pop listeners know as the tune "No Other Love"). Smietana informed his audience that here he was merging Chopin with Jimi Hendrix, though Smietana's comparatively tame solos carried a lot less Hendrix than he believed. Still, there was no denying the craft and ingenuity of this work.
It took a certain degree of audacity for Smietana to segue into an extended blues segment – with guest vocalist – in the city that created the modern template for the music. The guitarist offered credible if predictable solos, but the hollow rasps of Australian singer Billy Neal represented a sad facsimile of the real thing. The saving grace here came from keyboardist Vijay Tellis-Nayak, whose weighty solos and atmospheric colors more often than not outshone everyone else on the bandstand.
Elsewhere in the evening, there was smoldering lyricism from Polish born, Chicago-based vocalist Grazyna Auguscik; technically challenged but lusty boogie romps from pianist Tad "Teemac" Janik with harmonica player Buzz Krantz; and generic fare from the Chicago band Wishing Well, which was partly redeemed by the elegant solos of the emerging pianist Bill Cessna.
Add up its many triumphs and scattered disappointments, and the All Souls Jazz Festival stands as a compelling event on Chicago's fall cultural calendar. Must we wait a full year for another?
More Grazyna Auguscik
Those who missed Grazyna Auguscik at the All Souls Jazz Festival have an opportunity to hear her this weekend in sets devoted to her newest project. Auguscik has just released "Man Behind the Sun: Songs of Nick Drake," her perspective on the melancholic music of the eclectic, short-lived British singer-songwriter. Auguscik will lead a top-notch band staffed by trumpeter James Davis, pianist Rob Clearfield, bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Jon Deitemyer, all of whom are on the album, plus guitarist John Kregor (taking the place of John McLean). Shows start at 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.
'Songs of a Dream'
Chicagoans know the husband-wife team of Alfreda Burke and Rodrick Dixon from their work in "Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah," but this weekend they'll unveil something new. "Songs of a Dream" is billed as an original, autobiographical cabaret show that's being co-produced by the Auditorium Theatre, which will be presenting the piece in its new performance space. "Songs of a Dream" plays at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Auditorium's Katten/Landau Studio, 425 S. Wabash Ave., fourth floor; tickets are $25-$35; visit auditoriumtheatre.org or phone 800-982-2787.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.