Pete Feenstra chatted to Leszek Cichonski for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, including the background to his album, world record-breaking and the Hendrix festivals. First broadcast 21 February 2021.
Luna Music [Release date 26.06.2o]
From the guitar and orchestral intro of ‘Foxy Lady’ – complete with Jorgos Skolias’s brusque idiosyncratic vocal – through to the succinct radio edit of the title track, this is a consistently well played album on which the orchestra is at heart of a project rather than on the periphery of a rock band.
‘Thanks Jimi Symphonic’ takes a while to hit its stride mainly because of a few awkward vocal phrasings, but it’s an album that delights with its adventurous spirit, innovative arrangements and the intuitive feel of guitarist and Hendrix disciple Leszek Cichonski.
Cichonski is a revered figure on the Polish rock scene, known for steering the award winning ‘Thanks Jimi Festival’ for 18 years as well as his educational work. And ‘Thanks Jimi Symphonic’ is surely his most ambitious undertaking.
Let it be said at the outset then, that Leszek Cichonski And Friends ‘Thanks Jimi Symphonic’ is one of the best orchestral and rock band albums of recent times.
Far too often on projects like this, the divide between the orchestral disciplined interpretation of the written part and a band’s natural inclination to improvise is a step too far.
Happily, the NFM Worclaw Philharmonic under the watchful eye of conductor Jerry Kosek warm to their task, amplifying melodies and emphasising intensity, but always leaving sufficient space for guitarist/arranger Cichonski to anchor the project with some intuitive solos.
The two musical genres meld perfectly on a live work out of ‘Hey Joe (Bolero intro)’.
The military shuffle drum, plucked strings and guitar opening of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ subtly evolves into a superb full blown arrangement, with enough space for Cichonski’s stinging attack.
And while ‘Hey Joe’ has become the song that helped Cichonski launch his record breaking ‘Thanks Jimi Festival’ to international acclaim, the significant thing here is the song’s journey from Tim Rose’s folky interpretation via Hendrix psychedelic masterpiece to this stirring symphonic rendition.
If Hendrix’s music and interpretive skills were ground breaking, then this imaginative version for band and orchestra proves the music to be durable.
The strings are magnificent too on ‘Little Wing’, while vocalist Skolias enjoys his best moments when slipping into some jazzy scat variations which sound like Focus’s Thijs Van Leer.
There’s also room for Robert Jarmuzek’s funky electric piano before an unexpected tempo change that finds the ensemble successfully reaching for an extra level of intensity, topped by Leszek’s magisterial solo.
There’s some judicious sequencing too, at the heart of an album that flows effortlessly to cross the dividing line between rock band and orchestra.
That said, I can’t help but feeling that there is a missed opportunity to top and tail the album with Cichonski’s own splendid composition ‘Thanks Jimi’, 3 versions of which book-end the album.
Even the title of ‘Thanks Jimi Intro (Hendrix medley)’ sounds like a natural opening track. It’s a magnificent orchestrated instrumental featuring an evocative sculpted guitar wah-wah which should have acted as an opening motif for the project as a whole.
As it is, you could view the top-heavy 3 song album resolution as being a musical exclamation point underscoring all 10 tracks.
No matter, the album opens confidently with the staccato strings of ‘Foxy Lady’ on which the brusque baritone of Jorgas Skolias takes some getting used to.
He’s actually better at scat singing than straight forward phrasing and while he has a good range, his accent sometimes detracts from the musical sweep that carries the album forward.
Refreshingly the first guitar solo on the album is short, sharp, succinct and is delivered with a warm tone and lightness of touch before the guitar and orchestra briefly engage in a call and response break before returning to the chorus.
The project’s signature song ‘Hey Joe‘ (Bolero intro’) follows and has been the conduit in Leszek Cichonski’s award winning ‘Thanks Jimi’ Festival gaining international recognition.
And while Skolias’s struggles with his clarity of diction, he attacks the song with a real vitality to match the uplifting orchestral feel.
It’s said that Hendrix always dreamt of collaboration such as this. And whether he did or not, he would surely enjoy a quiet smile on hearing the melodic orchestral sweep and Cichonski’s interpretive solo leading to a belated ‘Star Spangled Banner’ riff.
And just when you think it can’t get any better, up pops former Storyville vocalist Malford Milligan with a gritty reading of ‘If 6 Was 9’ – even if he does seems a bit unsure of how to tackle the brief Hendrix rap either side of some feverish strings and a percussive undertow.
The NFM Philharmonic adds a couple of Nelson Riddle style lines before Cichonski fills the void with a fluid solo full of intensity and poise. A subsequent drop-down features Tomasz Grabowy’s bass solo and a brief guitar interplay between Cichonski and fellow guitarist Lukasz Krywicki with strong orchestral support.
They say if you ever get lost in a piece follow the drummer, and here Wojciech Bulinki is a rock, as he drives the ensemble forward impressively.
Milligan is authoritative in his phrasing on ‘Fire’, though again he appears a bit more circumspect on Jimi’s rapped asides.
If ever there was a question about what an album like this should leave out, then ‘Thanks Jimi Symphonic’ offers the effective response by breathing fresh life into innovative arrangements of a Hendrix’s familiar back catalogue.
Cichonski is also at the centre of a sumptuous blues adaptation of ‘Voodoo Child’, providing both an intuitive vocal and shimmering guitar on a brooding number that percolates and subtly builds. He slips into an exquisite conversational tasty toned solo full of delicate touch and tone and plenty of space, while the strings fatten the melody.
It’s on this track that the project moves beyond the ambitious to the inspirational.
‘Purple Haze’ is given complete overhaul on the intro, with the song’s repeated salient riff being allowed to hover and float Dave Gilmour style above the orchestra.
The palpable tinge of echo reverb on the guitar might well be the hall’s natural acoustics, before the orchestra and guitar pound out the riff either side of Milligan’s gutsy world weary vocal.
And so the album concludes with 3 versions of Cichonski’s self penned title track, which include a superb instrumental medley and Malford Milligan’s very best vocal on the album.
It’s a quite beautiful tune with an evocative guitar tone. The penultimate version features Milligan’s gutsy vocal phrasing, tic-toc percussion, sonorous horns, sympathetic strings and colourful lyrical imagery, as it builds to the celebratory ‘Thanks Jimi’ hook: “Thanks Jimi and the world was not the same.”
The final radio edit re-states the project theme and makes the kind of emotional connection that is never too far from a heartfelt album played with love, affection, eloquence and musical excellence. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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