The eclectic British singer-songwriter died in 1974, at age 26, his slim discography never embraced by the wide public but still casting a spell on those who value unpredictable melody lines, unusual chord changes and unmistakable melancholy.
Auguscik – a Polish-born singer who long has based her career in Chicago – might not seem a likely candidate to have become smitten with Drake's oeuvre, her jazz sensibility presumably far removed from Drake's folk-rock leanings. But there always has been a dark, Eastern European undertow to Auguscik's work, and Drake's unconventional harmonic vocabulary and moody, elusive lyrics understandably appealed to her.
So much, in fact, that she has devoted her latest album to his music and on Friday evening at the Green Mill Jazz Club celebrated the release of "Man Behind the Sun: Songs of Nick Drake." Joined by like-minded, hyper-sensitive instrumentalists, Auguscik made a compelling case for Drake's music, though its low-flame, slow-burn aesthetic needed more contrast and more melodic development to sustain a jazz listener's interest.
For the most part, Auguscik clung closely to Drake's melody lines as he wrote them, generally bypassing the improvisations and transformations that are at the heart of a jazz musician's art. This relatively straightforward approach gave Drake's songs an opportunity to be heard in full cry, his sinuous melodies rendered all the more effective by Auguscik's opaque, nearly vibrato-less alto. Add to the mix some deftly atmospheric jazz instrumentals, and Drake's music sounded fully preserved, though cast in a singular, contemporary light.
In Drake's "River Man," Auguscik's ethereal long-held notes and floating, occasionally wordless vocal lines gave this music an other-worldly dimension. She turned to a slightly brighter tone and achieved translucent sounds, with soft vocal support from her colleagues, in "From the Morning," which benefited from Rob Clearfield's poetic pianism. And in "Time Has Told Me," John Kregor's twangy guitar and drummer Jon Deitemyer's gently shuffling backbeats evoked a country-music flavor – with a twist of jazz.
All of which argued strongly for Drake's music – which clearly was Auguscik's primary purpose – but diminished somewhat the power of Auguscik's art. This was apparent once she stepped away from Drake's songs and pushed ahead to music of Chopin. No singer today brings as much melodic invention and rhythmic exuberance to these scores, Auguscik applying a vast array of jazz techniques to a harmonically ultra-sophisticated music.
Auguscik's imaginative reworking of the Chopin's Prelude in C Minor – replete with high-flying scat singing and ebullient swing rhythm – brought this set to life in ways that the more muted Drake repertoire did not.
No doubt Auguscik has done a noble turn for Drake, delivering his music to listeners who otherwise wouldn't hear it. But she would be still more effective in Drake's scores – and in her own work, as well – by juxtaposing his songs with some of her more technically demanding and musically ambitious repertoire.
A little of Nick Drake goes a long way in a jazz setting, and Auguscik has so much more to offer.
Grazyna Auguscik performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.