The kids who study music at St. Charles North High School may not realize how fortunate they are. For their teacher/bandleader happens to be one of Chicago's more commanding saxophonists, an artist who surely could build a full-time international career performing, if he so chose.
When I first heard John Wojciechowski, at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in Washington in 1996, I was sure he would take the top prize. Certainly he deserved it. He won third place instead, but there was no doubt that a significant player had announced himself to the wider jazz public at that momentous event. It marked a turning point for him, for he had just come home to the Detroit area after a brief foray in New York and was contemplating his next move. A conversation with jazz master Wayne Shorter at the Monk contest inspired him to "stay on the path and keep working hard," as Wojciechowski told me afterward. To the good fortune of Chicago listeners, Wojo - as everyone calls him - moved here in 2002. Ever since, his muscular playing has powered the work of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, the much-missed Chicago Jazz Ensemble and uncounted smaller groups.
But nowhere has Wojciechowski made a stronger statement than in "Focus" (Origin Records), his charismatic new recording, which brings him to the Green Mill Jazz Club this weekend. Listen to the vibrancy of his sound, the ingenuity of his lines and the originality of his compositions, and you're hearing a once-promising saxophonist asserting himself as a mature master. He's joined on the recording and in his Green Mill dates by drummer Dana Hall, pianist Ryan Cohan and bassist Dennis Carroll - all widely admired Chicago musicians who have worked with Wojciechowski for years.
But how does he accomplish this level of work while teaching high school in St. Charles? "It takes a lot of time management," says Wojciechowski, with a chuckle. "I have to stay really focused." Which demands a larger question - why teach high school when you're playing at this level and could spend all of your time performing, composing, collaborating? "It really doesn't feel like work, for one thing," says Wojciechowski. "Over the years I've grown really passionate about sharing music and the things that you learn not only about music, but the things you learn about life through the study of music - sharing that with kids. "Most of them are not going into music (professionally) ... but we're trying to play music as best as we possibly can." The students, adds Wojciechowski, are learning about "working with other people and the beauty of ensemble (and) losing oneself in music. I think those are life lessons you take with you no matter what you're doing. "So it's really satisfying. I teach most of them for four years. I get to see them grow as human beings and as musicians."
Maybe that's part of what we hear in "Focus" - not only the breadth of Wojciechowski's musicianship but the depth of his experiences in life. There's a profundity to his expression in these tracks, an expressive power that transcends virtuosity, which makes "Focus" very difficult to put down once you start playing it.
Several years ago, drummer Hall - who's now director of jazz studies at DePaul University's School of Music - told me that he considered Wojciechowski to be "exceptional. ... He's just at the top of my list as far as players in Chicago go - or players in the country, really." The saxophonist, added Hall, "can play lead alto in a big band; he can play the solo tenor chair; he can play in a sweet way; he can play in a tough, angular way." All of that and more comes through on "Focus," its title perhaps referencing how Wojciechowski manages to juggle all the things he does.
His jazz autobiography goes back as far as he can remember. His father - a sheet metal worker who played jazz organ - had music going constantly at home, meaning that "literally from infancy I listened to jazz," Wojciechowski once told me. Chicago embraced him as soon as he moved here, Wojciechowski's extroverted temperament well-suited to the tone and tempo of a town that's less frenetic than New York but blessed with a more robust jazz scene than most other American cities. Surely the large scale of his sound and the leonine nature of his expression befits a city that produced such larger-than-life tenor men as Von Freeman, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Fred Anderson, Clifford Jordan and many more. As for the Chicago scene today, Wojciechowski remains impressed. "It almost seems healthier now than when I first moved here," says Wojciechowski, 41. "There's this whole crop of young players playing this really creative music. "The last few years I've been really inspired by people like Marquis Hill, who I'm sure everybody is," adds Wojciechowski, referring to the Chicago musician who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition last year and has since moved to New York. "To have young guys out there who sound the way he does, or the way these young guys do, and do the things they're doing - it motivates you to keep at what you're doing and not rest on your laurels."
"Focus" proves that Wojciechowski is doing anything but.