THERE might not be any singing on the latest album by jazz group New Focus, who appear at The Tolbooth in Stirling on Friday, May 26, but every track was intended as a song.
“We called the album New Focus on Song because we wanted to convey the idea of melody,” says Glasgow-based pianist Euan Stevenson who co-leads the group with Scottish National Jazz Orchestra saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski.
“As soon as we started to work on a second album we decided that all the compositions had to be tuneful, which isn’t necessarily as easily accomplished as you might imagine.”
Stevenson and Wiszniewski were also determined that none of the tracks on the album should stretch beyond four minutes, reasoning that people prefer listening to something that moves them in three and a half to four minutes, like a pop single.
Imposing this time constraint has been good discipline for them as writers, they say.
It seems to be paying off because the album has enjoyed good radio coverage and when BBC Radio 3 celebrated its 70th anniversary towards the end of last year, New Focus were among the bands invited to broadcast live from London’s South Bank Centre.
The four-minute maximum is something that stems from one of Stevenson’s interests outside of New Focus. As well as being an award-winning jazz pianist and a classical recitalist, Stevenson has a side line in writing pop music.
Pop’s influence on New Focus on Song, alongside the more expected folk and classical flavours, has been noted 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 original music together.
Then, in 2011, Wiszniewski 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, the classic album Focus.
Recreating this landmark in the tricky field of jazz soloist interacting with string section presented Wiszniewski and Stevenson, who came on board immediately, 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.”
The pair found it a great experience, though, and having been around before the Getz project came along, some of the compositions that found their way onto New Focus’ eponymously named first 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 co-leaders, 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 the jazz quartet that comes to Stirling.
“We enjoy playing the New Focus repertoire in a few different formats,” says Wiszniewski. “We’ve even stripped it down to a saxophone-piano duo recently and that’s gone really well. But there’s an energy we get with the quartet that’s particularly exhilarating for us and we hope the Tolbooth audience feels it as well.”
Written by Rob Adams.