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Bossa to Brass: Jazz with Paulinho Garcia, Grazyna Auguscik and Brian O'Hern's Model Citizens

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It's been a while since I've blogged; for those of you who may have missed me, I have a pretty good excuse. I've been living part-time in Tuscany while researching the culture of bareback horseracing that prevails in one of its leading cities. The result is my next book, Seven Seasons In Siena, which will be out from Ballantine in June.

Now that I'm stateside for the foreseeable future, I've been scrambling to reconnect with the local performance scene. Thursday I dropped by Katerina's for a couple of sets by Paulinho Garcia, the Brazilian-born Chicago guitarist and vocalist who's one of the city's--if not the country's--major interpreters of the classic Brazilian repertoire. Though I'm a longtime fan, this was my first opportunity to see Garcia paired with his occasional singing partner, Grazyna Auguscik, a Polish-born siren who's been a force in Chicago jazz for more than a decade.

Despite the disparity in their appearances--Garcia bright-eyed and avuncular, with a cap of snowy white hair; Auguscik regal and serene beneath a concealing blond fringe--when they began harmonizing, the effect was hypnotic. Garcia's warm baritone, with just a hint of buzz, twined with Auguscik's cool, clear soprano as though they were created specifically to complement each other. Covering a wide range of Brazilian tunes, they cooed and crooned, purred and scatted. Katerina, the club's proprietor, called it "the most beautiful collective whisper you'll ever hear," and the uncanny, almost intoxicating shifts in texture and rhythm were amplified by shifts from Portugese to English to Polish. In fact, for me the night's most significant revelation was the way Polish consonant sounds--all those affricates and fricatives that English speakers find so hard to place on the tongue--meld so gorgeously into bossa nova and samba. The syllables seem to caress the melodies, like sea foam washing up on a beach. In one number--Marcos Valle's "Summer Samba"--Garcia sang the lyric in English, alternating with Auguscik singing in Polish, and there was no question which suited the tune better.

The emotional range of the program was also remarkable. Brazilian music is known for its lightness, its deftness; for this reason it's often hastily dismissed as disposable pop confectionery. But the work of the great Brazilian composers, like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, is tremendously sophisticated; it's slenderness and fleetness are deceptive--in fact it has the structural strength to carry the weightiest themes on its slender back. Garcia and Auguscik brought these same qualities to some non-Brazilian songs they brought into the mix, including Sting's "Fragile" (which Katerina made them play twice), the Beatles' "Blackbird," and Ned Washington and Victor Young's "My Foolish Heart." Polish composers were represented both by a modern tune and by an arrangement of a melody by Frederic Chopin, who Garcia recognizes an influence on Brazilian music--thus giving him and Auguscik a common musical antecedent, and a stronger rationale for their partnership. Not, given the results, that they need one.

From the quiet, breezy intensity of Garcia and Auguscik, I found myself a few days later encountering the booming, rollicking irreverence of Brian O'Hern's Model Citizens Big Band. If you want to experience the full range and vitality of Chicago's jazz scene, you can't do better than to bookend a long weekend with these two acts; they're both nominally jazz, but they seem to exist on different planets. Even the venues stand in stark contrast; Katerina's is a throwback to sleek, mid-century supper clubs, its walls adorned by black-and-white clips from classic American and European cinema; while The Gallery Café is a hipster hangout, its walls choked with artworks that are either ironic or post-ironic, depending on how many drinks you've had. There seem to be a disproportionate number of green-skinned portraits, including one rather alarming nude, which make it seem like the place might have been decorated by the Incredible Hulk during his college years.

O'Hern has gathered together a group of professional players from various ensembles about town, and provided them an outlet to come together once a month and cut loose. Given the size of the outfit, it's inevitable that the number of players varies from gig to gig, but you can always count on a formidable wall of saxes and trumpets, complemented by trombones, tubas, and more, plus a rhythm section and a piano--the latter of which is manned by O'Hern himself. In whatever incarnation, the group remains one of the major players in the brass-band renaissance the city's been enjoying lately.

A local boy who grew up in Elk Grove Village, O'Hern has a long résumé that includes stints with both the Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller Orchestras, so he knows his way around a bandstand. But in sharp contrast to the nattily dressed bandleaders of the Golden Age, he takes the stage in a Model Citizens t-shirt about two sizes too big for him; tonight he even pauses in mid-set to accessorize with a red kerchief, like a western bandit. A lean, limber, jovial master of ceremonies, he conducts like a major-league pitcher in windup mode.

Most of the tunes are O'Hern's original compositions, though the divergences are memorable. Last time I stopped in, the band opened with a version of the Star Spangled Banner that could've made a joint session of congress leap to its feat and start truckin'. Tonight they started strong with a gorgeous composition that resided somewhere between Charles Ives and Carl Stalling, before O'Hern announced that the evening's program would be "obscure" items from their book--pieces that have accrued over the years but seldom get played. Some were from the band's debut album, Party Party Party, an out-of-print rarity that I do not possess but covet. Whatever its provenance, the material put the band in an uncharacteristically '60s groove, bordering on funk. It was hard to stay seated.

To call the sets "loose" is to slam-dunk an overstatement. At one point the players commandeered a pitcher of beer from the crowd and passed it around between tunes. It's really more bash than recital, and the crowd reflects it; this is one of those bands that's built up not just a following, but a community. Which can make it intimidating for a newcomer; walking into a Model Citizens gig is like crashing a private party. But if you talk to the regulars, you'll find them very open and welcoming. Hell, why wouldn't they be? Just listen to the sounds enveloping them... that right there, man, is happiness.

Paulinho Garcia and Grazyna Auguscik perform every month at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Road in Chicago. They also perform separately; check Garcia's upcoming dates at his website, and Auguscik's at hers. Brian O'Hern and the Model Citizens play the third Monday of every month at Gallery Cabaret, 2020 W. Oakley in Chicago. Visit their website for more info.