Sometimes, the return of a beloved artist after a lengthy hiatus provides just the right amount of comfort and the fresh burst of energy we need at the perfect time. Certainly when Marcin Nowakowski started working again with longtime collaborator and producer Jeff Lorber in 2018 on the tracks that would evolve into the veteran Polish born saxophonist’s latest album Next Level, he couldn’t have anticipated the pandemic, its lengthy lockdown and the collective anxiety we would all be feeling in its wake.
But now as the dynamic collection drops and grabs us melodically, rhythmically, emotionally and spiritually, we’re slowly emerging from that challenging era with a cautious optimism that allows us not only to gather and share the fun of live music again, but also feel a sense of joy that was missing for so long.
No two contemporary urban jazz tracks of 2021 embody that hopeful, forward thinking spirit better than the two lead singles from the album, the title song “Next Level” and especially “Moving Forward.” The titles are unique in that they both apply very personally to Marcin’s return to the studio – and working with Lorber – nearly a full decade after brightening us up with his seriously funkified album Shine (2011), and the universal situation of emergence from darkness and uncertainty that we can all connect with so powerfully.
Grabbing us quickly with the steady, mid-tempo funk groove of drummer Gary Novak, Lorber’s simmering bluesy keys and Dave Mann’s sizzling horns, “Next Level” is a perfect, super melodic but also hard edged showcase for Marcin’s much missed muscular tenor fire. Lorber offsets the dramatic percussive punch of the tune with one of his trademark dazzling improvisational piano solos which, like many of the songs on the album, takes the tune out of the typical “smooth jazz” vibe and into the spirit of more adventurous contemporary jazz that marks so many of the keyboardist’s solo albums and productions over the years.
Likewise, “Moving Forward” is a blazing, freewheeling blast of high-octane energy whose relentless funk intensity lays a foundation for Marcin to regale us with his emotional, alternately cool, passionate and soaring, David Sanbornesque alto. The tune also has the can’t miss fusion of Paul Jackson Jr.’s jangly rhythm guitar, Mann’s potent horn arrangement and another crazy-spirited solo by Lorber and the brass punches forth behind him.
Fans of Marcin’s early albums – including his 2005 debut Smooth Night and the 2009 follow-up (and first Lorber collaboration) Better Days – may have wondered what happened to him and why there was a long studio recording delay after Shine. Keeping it real, Marcin says simply that he didn’t engage in solo projects during this time because he was searching for himself musically. That kind of honesty and vulnerability is inspiring, and makes the sonically transcendent results of finding of his road forward on Next Level all the more exciting to experience.
“When I flew to the U.S. to record the album, I was at a different, new point in my life and in my playing on the instrument,” Marcin says. “As I was arranging and composing songs in the studio, Jeff noticed that I had made tremendous progress since we last met. It was a very intense time spent in the studio. Jeff is a titan of work and always works quickly and efficiently. Collaborating on Next Level was a lot of fun. We agreed with each other in all aspects – which was a somewhat different experience than with my earlier albums where great music emerged from some disagreements.
“At one point,” he adds, “Jeff said, ‘You’ve gone to the next level with your playing. I really enjoy working with you in the studio. And I had the same feeling and to me, Jeff has also gone to the next level because he’s now also playing guitar. Those riffs he recorded on the two singles and other tunes like ‘Pockets’ and ‘Au Contraire’ are phenomenal! There was a great chemistry between us in the recording process that made this album especially important to me. I’m delighted to say that this is just the beginning. I can’t wait to record another album with Jeff. What was the inspiration for songwriting and arranging? Probably ourselves!”
Perhaps one of the reasons for the extra soul vigor in Marcin’s performances is the fact that the saxophonist recorded much of the album and playing many of his parts while taking care of his father, who was suffering from pancreatic cancer. “He was my best friend and a great musician, so he had a big influence on me. Thanks to him, I recorded very emotional saxophone parts. For him, it is now the next level and for me in life, it is also the next level – so this is a very personal album dedicated to him.”
All that talk about tremendous progress and serious “next level” playing manifests powerfully throughout the uplifting and energizing yet also sensual and heartfelt journey of the album’s ten tracks. The seductive and whimsical, horn-fired “Pockets” is unique for a track in this genre because in addition to Marcin’s searing alto, the buoyant rhythm section of Novak and frequent Lorber associate Jimmy Haslip and more Lorber keyboard and guitar razzle dazzle, it includes the dramatic, artful textures of the four piece Polish based Atom Sting Quartet.
Marcin then shares his more laid back side of his artistry with the dreamy and sensual ballad “Au Contraire” before blasting forth again on “Moving Forward” and the soaring, crackling rock-jazz anthem “Mission” featuring Michael Thompson’s acoustic and electric guitar. Thompson also adds his inimitable dual guitarisma to two other key tracks - the reflective, laid back and atmospheric “Spice of Life,” which features some of Lorber’s dreamy retro soul-jazz touches and another of his lively solos; and “CoffeeBear,” which true to its clever hybrid title, is cozy and laid back but features Marcin’s robust tenor melody.
On the lighthearted old school funk jam “Watercolors,” Marcin invites us to experience the sweet higher register of his soprano sax as he takes his artistry to new heights (literally and figuratively) with on one of the project’s most majestic and inspirational performances. Though it’s being released in the fall, Next Level also includes a cheerful, exuberant and welcoming ode to “Spring.” The final instrumental track, “Jumper88,” adds a parting blast of sly, mid-tempo alto fun featuring an extended Lorber piano solo.
Marcin and Lorber wrap Next Level with the vocal tune “Funky Cat,” a truly international, Euro driven affair featuring Polish male singer Kuba Badach, Italian guitarist Claudio Cervino, Swiss keyboardist Urs Wiesendanger and Polish synth player Wojtek Oszak, in addition to legendary American session greats Paul Jackson, Jr., Nathan East and John Robinson.