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Grazyna Auguscik jazzes music of Nick Drake

Howard Reich

12:09 PM CST, November 15, 2012

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The songs of Nick Drake get under your skin, insinuating their way into your consciousness through the gentle contours of their melody lines and the expressive urgency of their lyrics.

And though Drake died in 1974, at age 26, with a slender discography to his credit, his work has been savored by contemporary audiences and reinterpreted by new generations of artists, among them the genre-breaking jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and, now, the Polish-born, Chicago-based jazz singer Grazyna Auguscik.

If Mehldau has captured listeners' attention by recording select Drake songs on stylistically far-flung releases, Auguscik has dug deeply into this work, devoting an entire album to Drake's oeuvre. This weekend, she'll be singing music from "Man Behind the Sun: Songs of Nick Drake" at the Green Mill, an atmospheric room uniquely suited to Drake's moody, introspective art.

That a jazz singer of Auguscik's rising international stature should devote so much of her interest to compositions by a long-gone, decidedly idiosyncratic songwriter may come as a surprise to some. But anyone who has savored the darkly Eastern European tone of much of Auguscik's work will see the progression as perfectly natural for her.

"His music is haunting music," Auguscik says. "It stays in your brain for a long time. The lyrics — they're poetry. The melodies are simple, but you can't get away from them. They stick with you, and when you perform them, you have to stick with them."

What Auguscik means is that the free-flying improvisations that she has brought to various musical settings, including, most recently, to bassist-composer Matt Ulery's "By a Little Light" recording, are not exactly what was called for in Drake's music. Instead, she says, she has aspired toward something subtler.

"It's hard to say (if) this is jazz," explains Auguscik, referring to her recorded and concert performances of Drake's work.

"We adapt his music to our style. But the songs are the songs. The lyrics are beautiful. It's a different adaptation. … The songs are melancholic. Most of his tunes are dark. But that's part of me, actually. I really like melancholic music. I feel very comfortable singing it, and it doesn't bring me down. I think this music doesn't sound melancholic when we play it."

We'll hear what she means this weekend, but surely the deep-amber quality of Auguscik's vocal tone and the long-lined lyricism of her phrasing have something to do with it. Or, to put it in other terms, the fervent, smoldering expressiveness of her singing — so deeply rooted in the music of her native Poland – can explore dark realms without sacrificing tonal beauty. Whether she's singing jazz standards, original songs, transformations of music by Chopin or repertoire by the instrumentalists in her band, Auguscik gives it all a warmly melodic glow, which could offer an unusual perspective on Drake's songs.

For this weekend's engagement, she'll by joined by a top-flight ensemble: pianist Rob Clearfield, bassist Ulery, drummer Jon Deitemyer trumpeter James Davis and guitarist John Kregor (the latter sitting in for John McLean, who's on the album). It was these musicians, in fact, who introduced Auguscik to Drake's songs several years ago, and she hasn't been able to resist it since.

"I fell in love with this music immediately … and adapted one or two tunes in my regular gigs," Auguscik says.

"Two years ago, I thought maybe I could do a whole album, but I wasn't sure: It's different music than what I was doing. But I'm doing it now with a great band, a younger generation, the best people in Chicago, so they inspired me to do this project.

"I'm so glad we could extend (the life of) this music, which was made 40 years ago, and introduce it for the next generation," Auguscik adds.

"And I'm sure a lot of people will buy the original (recordings) of Nick Drake, because I think this music is unique."

Also worth hearing

Donald Harrison: The mighty New Orleans saxophonist will play music from his recording "Quantum Leap," which he bills as "the crossroads where jazz tradition meets soul, science and today's dance music." 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

Brian Lynch: In a significant booking, Andy's Jazz Club will present a trumpeter perhaps best known for his work with pianist Eddie Palmieri. But Lynch stands as a formidable soloist in his own right; he'll lead a quartet. 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com

Dee Alexander: One of Chicago's greats, vocalist Alexander leads her Evolution Ensemble, with cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Ernie Adams. 10 p.m. Friday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Road; $10; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com

"Elevation III: The Gathering": Percussionist Kahil El'Zabar offers a multimedia event featuring music, video, fashion and live painting. The band will include trumpeter Corey Wilkes, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, bassist Junius Paul and pianist Robert Irving III. 7 p.m. Friday at Zhou B Art Center, 1029 W. 35th St.; $20-$30; 773-523-0200 or senseculture.com/elevation

Paulinho Garcia: The extraordinarily subtle Chicago singer-guitarist blends jazz with idioms of his native Brazil in deeply personal ways. He'll lead his quartet. 10 p.m. Saturday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Road; $10; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com

Brienn Perry: A magisterial jazz baritone, Perry returns to his hometown in a most congenial setting: the intimate sessions at Room 43, presented by the Hyde Park Jazz Society. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43rd St.; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Grazyna Auguscik

When: 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway

Tickets: $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com