The summer is all but gone, but at least we still have the resilient brightness of the latest release from New Focus to act as a panacea for all those daylight saving blues yet to come. The pairing of Euan Stevenson’s elegantly assured piano with Konrad Wiszniewski’s warm saxophone playing was always going to work well. Both musicians come with ready smiles and an air of approachability.
Their eponymous first album as New Focus (2012) successfully married delicate string arrangements to the understated brawn of a well-built, confident jazz quartet. It featured The Glasgow String Quartet in the romantic corner and the bullish rhythm section of Alyn Cosker and Michael Janisch in the neo-realistic corner. The result might have been blood on the floor, but instead it was a triumph of musical entente cordiale that produced the very beautiful and profoundly heartfelt Music from A Northern Mining Town.
On this new release, they’ve chosen to name the record New Focus On Song perhaps to signal differentiation, or perhaps to suggest broader horizons. Either way, ‘On Song’ has a very different feel to it, and the music happily takes off in multiple directions, sometimes in the most whimsical of ways.
The opening Air in D Minor is light as a feather and full of the free-floating optimism that characterizes much of Euan Stevenson’s music. The lushly verdant Green Park hisses and hums like a summer lawn and is already a critics’ choice. Sophia’s Song is already one of my personal picks, for it reminded me a little of fondly-remembered jazz-flavoured TV themes like Hill Street Blues or The Rockford Files.
But few have flagged up what would seem obvious even to Dr Watson. These are songs (doh) and melody is the star. The only thing that is missing on the undulating Braeside is a Gaelic Choir to offer counterpoint to the gorgeous strings, busy flute and Stevenson’s piano tinkling in a waterfall of sweet notes. I look forward to the day they find a lyricist or vocal arranger who understands their vision and sets new standards in songwriting.
Both Wiszniewski and Stevenson have a tremendously easy way with deliriously spiralling notation that they colour to great effect with squirreling improvisation. In and around that core relationship there are sombre sections, such as those heard on Stevenson’s brooding Piano Interlude, lachrymose strings on Ascension and pugilistic jamming on Fourths Ostinato and Corea Change.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Alyn Cosker returns to the drum chair partnered by Andrew Robb on bass, and they absolutely nail the twin requirements of subtlety and concentrated energy for a record that drips with liquid melody, but can’t be allowed to sag in the middle.
New Focus On Song has depth and diversity, but its greatest strength is its melodic charm, which is embroidered beautifully by Nicola Wiszniewska on flute and Alina Bzhezhinska on harp, with elegantly tailored strings from The Glasgow String Quartet.