Bożena U. Zaremba: You started the collaboration with Andrzej Jagodziński1 many years before the “Chopin Goes Jazz” project.
: Yes, that’s true. Andrzej’s interpretations of Chopin’s music are unique, authentic, wise, and very emotional. He remains faithful both to himself and to Chopin’s music.
Your main inspiration is folk music. What fascinates you most in this music?
Its genuineness. It’s also a part of our [Polish] identity. Chopin is the best example of how folk music can be raised to a different level. Folk music has recently invaded pop music quite aggressively because that is the new trend: Fashion dictates what we are supposed to listen to. But in my case, the magnetism of the folk music is in my genes. My grandparents and my parents played musical instruments, and they used to sing a lot. I can feel this folk “tone” and, whether I want it or not, it can be heard in my singing, I think.
What about other inspirations?
I draw on the world’s ethnic music—Brazilian, Arabic, African, Balkan—and I sing what is close to my style, to my feeling.
Where is the place for jazz in all that?
Music has no boundaries. Folk music is in my roots, it’s part of nature, and I feel part of it. What we do with this music, or how we classify it, is irrelevant. These are labels only. I use a lot of scat singing, without words, to improvise on a particular theme. I like this aspect of improvisation, which is the essential element of jazz.
Can drawing on Polish folk music help Polish musicians gain stature in the world’s jazz market?
I believe that originality and uniqueness always give us a better chance to be noticed. The music world is enormous, and competition is getting tougher and tougher. The flow of information is rapid and boundless. In this immense crowd, it’s easier to notice something different. So why not try making use of something that is closest to our soul? But I can’t really tell if [drawing from] your native folk music is a guarantee for success.
Did that uniqueness help you find your place in the American music market?
Maybe. I have created my own style, my own language. I do it my way.
Howard Reich from the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Grazyna Auguscik is not merely a vocalist but, rather, a musician who has a purpose for every note she sings.” When we say “musician,” we usually mean “instrumentalist,” but we don’t say it about a vocalist (unless he or she is an instrumentalist as well). What is the difference between “just a vocalist” and a “musician”? Where is the borderline?
The voice is the most perfect instrument in its own right and has great possibilities. The difficulty lies in bringing these possibilities up. I use my voice not only to interpret lyrics, but also, through scat singing, to improvise; I use my voice like as instrument. It’s a great pleasure to tell a story with your own language.
Besides the vocal “equilibristics,” there is a lot of lyricism in your improvisations, especially at slow tempos. You also use unusual syllables in your scat singing, which make it often sound like some exotic dialect.
Listening to other instruments certainly influences the way you create your own ways of expression, your own sound. In my scat singing, I use a lot of syllables that nobody can understand. But I don’t know how I do it. It happens so spontaneously. Improvisation is based on emotions carried by music. With that in mind, it’s easier to create something that sounds out of the ordinary, that sounds exotic, or even mysterious.
In your scat improvisations you often abandon the idea of a solo, but “play” together with the accompanying instrument, with an accordion, for example. In those moments, I get the impression that you are “chasing” each other.
Yes, I like that, too. These are partially arranged sections, in which we create new colors, making the most of how the voice and the instrument sound together. Music is very colorful thanks to the vast array of sound qualities, both inherent in a particular instrument and generated by instruments playing together.
Do you make the arrangements yourself?
Most of the time these are my ideas. But I like “open” playing. In other words, I give the musicians a lot of freedom, and a lot of arrangement ideas are born while working with them. Every concert is different. And that is my goal. I choose instrumentalists very carefully.
You pay attention to the unique sound, the timbre of your voice and music. Tomasz Stanko2 once said that the individual sound of the instrument is the reflection of our life. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely. We are constantly telling the story of our life with our music, and a distinctive sound helps us tell that story in such a way that the audience is waiting for more.
You have chosen Chicago, a city with rich music traditions, as your hometown. Why?
After I finished Berklee College of Music in Boston, many of my colleagues went to New York City, the capital of the arts and inspiration, but also a place of hard life for an artist. I imagined that at the beginning of my life in New York, I would probably have to do some odd jobs outside of music. I did not want to waste my time, so I decided to move to Chicago, which I had known from my previous visits. Chicago is a huge city, where lots of wonderful musicians live; it also has great musical traditions, in blues and jazz; finally, it’s a multi-ethnic city, and that creates a great opportunity to collaborate with musicians who come from all over the world. But if you know what you want to do, you can live anywhere.
You collaborate with the Green Mill jazz club, considered to be one of the best in the world.
Yes, and it has an almost 100-year musical tradition that goes back to the era of silent movies. It has a spectacular history and many stories, including the one associated with its co-owner, Al Capone. The club still has the same decor, has a beautiful sound, has its stars such as Patricia Barber or Kurt Elling, who perform here regularly, has a great audience, and has a fantastic owner, David Jemilo. Since my first concert 16 years ago, I have become a part of the Green Mill family.
Tell us something about your record company.
I started my independent recording business ten years ago [in 1997]. I am the producer, marketing director, and concert manager. This is a very time-consuming venture and therefore a cause of my constant frustration because there is little time left for music. In my projects, I make music that is close to my heart. I cherish this complete artistic freedom, which gives me the impulse and “fuel” to live. I do not accept compromise in art, though it’s difficult and risky. But it pays off. It takes a lot of courage to do what I am doing. Let’s face it—I am a Pole living in the United States. I sing, which means I need to be in forefront. I need to give everybody work. I need to give it all some structure and sell it, which means giving interviews, for example, which I don’t like [laughs
Because they ask me personal questions about my private life.
I am not [laughs].
True. We are actually talking about nice things. In reality, it is music that fills my whole life, and music is the most intimate part of it.
1 See the interviews featuring Andrzej Jagodziński: “Three Visions of a Genius” and “Bringing Classical Music and Jazz Together.”
2 World-renowned Polish jazz trumpeter