New Focus - orchestrating a new direction
Everything’s not always quite as it seems with New Focus. On the latest album by the group that’s co-led by pianist Euan Stevenson and saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski, New Focus on Song, there are tracks called Green Park and Braeside.
The general, and entirely reasonable, assumptions are that the former takes its name from the royal park in Westminster, which in turn gives its name to a prominent station on the London Underground, and that Braeside has its origins in a Scottish location. In fact, the Green Park in question is an hotel in Pitlochry and Braeside is a house in Surrey that belongs to Stevenson’s father-in-law.
Even the album’s title might be misinterpreted. There’s no singing on New Focus on Song, as some have expected, but Stevenson and Wiszniewski didn’t set out to mislead people.
“The idea was really to convey tunefulness,” says Stevenson, who composed all but three of the album’s thirteen tracks and wrote all of the arrangements for the ten musicians involved – jazz quartet, string quartet plus concert harp and flute.
“Our one caveat with all the compositions was that they had to be tuneful. We were also very concerned that none of them stretched beyond four minutes because people don’t seem to have the time these days to concentrate on longer works. They want something that moves them in three and a half to four minutes, and imposing that time constraint has been good discipline for us. It also seems to be paying off because we’ve already had some good radio coverage.”
The four-minute maximum is something that stems from one of Stevenson’s extracurricular interests, writing pop music, which he was been working at for the past eight years. Pop’s influence on the album, alongside the more expected folk and classical flavours, has been picked up on by several reviewers. It’s all part of the composer’s craft that Stevenson is continually honing and that, in some ways, was interrupted by the project that gave New Focus its name.
In the beginning Stevenson and Wiszniewski were working on their own music together. Both have a number of other outlets, Wiszniewski leading his own quartet and featuring with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and drummer Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra, but in 2011 the saxophonist was commissioned by Edinburgh Jazz Festival to present a fiftieth anniversary tribute to the great saxophonist Stan Getz’s 1961 collaboration with arranger Eddie Sauter, Focus.
A landmark album in the tricky field of jazz soloist interacting with string section or orchestra, Focus – or the recreation thereof – presented Wiszniewski and Stevenson, his natural collaborator, with a challenge.
“I’d studied classical composition at university and done a little bit of orchestration but I had to get the ‘how to’ books out,” says Stevenson. “The thing about Focus was that Eddie Sauter composed these string pieces for Stan Getz to improvise over, whereas it was more natural for me to write something and then arrange it for the instrumentation to hand.”
It was a great experience, though, and having been around before the Getz project came along, some of the compositions that found their way onto the first, eponymously named New Focus album benefited from Stevenson’s work in providing the string quartet and harp arrangements for Wiszniewski to luxuriate in as the featured soloist in Focus.
Maintaining the group that performed Focus – a nine piece, with bass and drums added to the two principals, string players and harpist – was never going to be easy. In an ideal world, Stevenson and Wiszniewski would work with the full group every time, and there’s even talk of expanding Stevenson’s writing for string quartet and harp into full orchestrations. Faced with hard economic reality, however, they are able to present the music convincingly in jazz quartet and duo formats.
Their next gigs feature a series of Scottish dates this month by the duo followed by an appearance on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Line-up from the South Bank Centre in London on October 1 by the quartet, with further quartet dates to follow in Gartmore, Falkirk and Aberdeen.
Working as a duo allows them to emphasise the melodic nature of their music. It can also bring out the Scottish influence more.
“The folk music element wasn’t something we included consciously – it’s really just part of living and working in Scotland,” says Wiszniewski, who has played with Skye-based folk fusion band Peatbog Faeries and toured with Aidan O’Rourke, the fiddler from folk trio Lau. “But it’s more natural for us in a way to draw on Scottish phrasing than, say, bebop and when we supported Ravi Coltrane’s group last year they were very complementary about how we were making jazz from our own culture, rather than trying to be American. So we took that to be a good sign that were on the right track.”
From The Herald, September 1, 2016