A great Polish pianist comes back to Chicago

Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

A great Polish pianist comes back to Chicago - Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune 9/9/11 -  "The world has changed radically since the celebrated Polish pianist Adam Makowicz last played Chicago, in 1990. But Makowicz's pianism – ornate, lyrical, soulful – remains as attractive as ever, as he proved before a capacity audience Wednesday night at the Chopin Theatre.

In many ways, this was an ideal performance space for the return of Makowicz (pronounced ma-KOH-vitch). Chicago's vast Polish community regularly convenes at the Chopin Theatre for cultural and social events, and the Polish language was spoken abundantly at this event, while camera crews from Polish TV wove through the crowd gathering in the lobby.

Yet there was another reason the Chopin Theatre served Makowicz so well: With the grand piano placed center stage and the audience on all sides of him, Makowicz was performing not beneath a traditional proscenium nor in a rambunctious club but, rather, in a small theater-in-the-round. This intimate space evoked the salons in which another Polish master – Frederic Chopin – performed in an earlier era. For a solo piano recital, there is no better way to be heard.

All the more because so much of Makowicz's repertoire hovers around music of Chopin. To hear a superb Polish pianist re-conceive Chopin through jazz was to rediscover links between Poland's greatest composer and America's singular musical art form.

The similarities between Chopin's extended chords and the harmonic innovations of jazz were made apparent in Makowicz's transformations of Chopin's preludes, Op. 28, during the evening's first set. Imperceptibly, Makowicz segued from Chopin originals to jazz harmony and back, making it almost impossible in some passages to determine where Chopin ended and American musical vernacular began. Only when Makowicz subtly introduced swing rhythm – or retreated from it – were the distinctions between the two genres palpably clear.

Many pianists, of course, have offered jazz improvisations on music of Chopin, which easily lends itself to this treatment (perhaps because Chopin's piano originals already sound so improvisational). But few complete the metamorphosis as profoundly as Makowicz.

Perhaps that's because the pianist's light touch and singing tone work so well in both idioms. Or perhaps it's because Makowicz grew up studying Chopin and understands its inner workings so thoroughly. From there, it's a small – but significant – leap to develop the jazz implications of a music written in the early 19th century, long before the word "jazz" even had been coined.

Of course, Makowicz, as always, performed the classic American song repertory, and here he sounded as conversant with George Gershwin and Cole Porter as he had been with Chopin. Though Makowicz barely touched the sustaining pedal in Porter's "Begin the Beguine," the pianist spun long, silken lines in his right hand, while his left produced a surging swing counterpoint.

In Gershwin's "Summertime," Makowicz unveiled intriguing re-harmonizations and lushly romantic textures. In Porter's "Just One of the Those Things," he pianist proved that his digital technique remains fleet and unerring.

Granted, none of this challenged conventional notions of mainstream jazz pianism – there were no hints of post-1960s experimentation in anything Makowicz played. And, truth to tell, these renditions clearly were carefully conceived in advance, not wholly invented in the moment.

But within a jazz solo-piano tradition established by the likes of Art Tatum, Dave McKenna, Dick Hyman and the like, Makowicz stands not only as a master but as a distinct voice, thanks partly to his Polish heritage and his embrace of Chopin. Even now, he sounds like no one else in jazz".