John Wojciechowski

Focus

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MUSIC REVIEW BY Carol Banks Weber, AXS

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There are times when you just want saxophonist John Wojciechowski, 41, to go on forever. "Elegy" is one of those times. The smooth jazz jutting up against the brusque cliffhangers of tonal disposition is among 10 very originally sounding tracks off the Chicago composer's new album, Focus.

Originally from Detroit, the saxophonist moved to Chicago and took it over since 2002. On Focus, he and his quartet - drummer Dana Hall, pianist Ryan Cohan, bassist Dennis Carroll - seek to make a difference in jazz circles. They may very well surpass a lot of what's going on.

Focus is the bandleader's first album on Origin Records, and his second major studio recording, but certainly not his last. Of the 10 studiously comped songs, seven belong to featured artist Wojciechowski, who makes of them what he will. Dana Hall wrote the tom-tom-heavy bureaucracy of "Call Of The Kingdom," while the group banded together for their takes on Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" and Monk's frequently covered "Evidence."

The beauty of Wojciechowski's style is his ability to transition from ballad to boisterous, tirelessly seductive to insistently intense, on a few of Hall's and Carroll's well-chosen beats. Wojciechowski's band mates are right there with him every step of the way.

Pianist Cohan completely takes charge on "Divided Man," a one-two combo of suave straight-ahead (that's Hall and Carroll sustaining the easy club vibe) and furtively agonized modern post-bop. Cohan plays leading man to Wojciechowski's character soundtrack, entering halfway through, completing the rest of the subtext.

For a grasp of the artist, go straight to "Elegy," a song Wojciechowski wrote for his devoted father, a sheet metal worker who did everything he could to take care of his family and sustain his son's dreams. "Elegy" became a stand-out, in many ways. "I don't usually do programmatic pieces," Wojciechowski explained in the press release, "but this was really a composition that wrote itself. It's based in my reflection that life is short and I still had a lot to say as an artist. And it brought up a lot of memories about my father." His father passed away two short years ago.

Growing up in Detroit, Wojciechowski, or "Wojo," knew he wanted to play sax after hearing the instrument and Sonny Stitt in action. Recognizing talent in his son at a very young age, his father - who moonlighted as a jazz organist - made it happen with a music instructor named Gerry Gravelle who taught extensive vocabulary in the art. By middle school, Wojo could play alto, clarinet, and flute, as well as the tunes from the Great American Songbook, a jazz musician's bible.

After getting his music education degree at Western Michigan University, and doing a little time in New York, Wojo came back home to gig, teach, and hone in on tenor before making his way to Chicago.

Focus is also about Wojo's homecoming to alto sax. "I didn't really play tenor till I got out of college," he explained to CD annotator Neil Tesser for the liner notes. I "had been trying to play the alto like it was tenor all along. It took me till then to understand that the tenor was the best instrument for me to get out the sound I heard in my head. It took me a couple years more before I got the tenor sound I was happy with.

"After the tenor became my 'voice,' I think I started to run away from the alto [his first instrument]. So I really wanted to get back to it on this recording,"

Versatility, while admirable, is nothing new under the sun for qualified jazz artists. What's more important in the long run is an appreciable knack for musicality in any setting, style, and situation. Wojciechowski shows he can hang in several of the songs, especially "Ternary" and "Twirl." "Ternary" and "Twirl" uniquely establish Wojciechowski as a lyrical player, able to wrap his notes around vagaries of melody and a lack of harmonic constraints. Too many horn players dispense with the lyrical to simply blow the smoke off the water.

Wojciechowski can do that too. But he can caress the melody of any song, however hidden in jazz dynamics - the way a pianist can by virtue of a more accessible set of keys.






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