New Focus Quartet, The Tolbooth, 26 May 2017

After playing in a barn on the Isle of Skye New Focus came to Stirling’s historic Tolbooth to play tunes from their latest CD New Focus On Song. Billed as “one of the most appealing, most beautifully realised projects to emerge on the UK jazz scene in recent years”, the Tolbooth’s main auditorium was set up cabaret style and we were treated to an intimate, acoustic set by the band.

The band opened with three melodic tracks from On Song;  Air in D Minor, Green Park and Sophia’s Song.  Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson then introduced the theme of family inspiration into the evening.  Next we heard Leonard’s Lament (a tribute to Leonard Cohen) and Dziadzio (Grandfather) which was inspired by Konrad’s Polish family heritage.  During this tune we heard a skillful solo from Andrew Robb on double bass. Both of these tracks are from their first CD the self-titled New Focus. The final tune of the first half was Corea Change. We heard and saw some amazing brushwork by Alyn Cosker in a short drum solo.

The second half opened with Flora followed by Fourths Ostinato, a jazzier number which is great to hear performed live.  Then to mark the occasion of the hottest day of the year we enjoyed a sweet, laid back, quiet version of Lovely Day by Bill Withers. The filmic sounding tune Braeside also from New Focus On Song lead onto the joyful, upbeat tune Parson’s Green. During Parson’s Green Alyn Cosker played one of his tremendous solos where he combines precise, engaged and defined playing with a huge amount of energy that never fails to astound the audience. (Yes, there was wooping and whistling!)  It is always a treat to see Cosker play up close and personal, you can actually see all the stick changing and the tiny nuances he fits in between larger beats.

New Focus should be seen live. Much of the work on their CDs is recorded with strings for a bigger more complex sound but seeing the musicians play live really lets you understand the essence of their music, enjoy its well-tuned richness and appreciate the skillful playing of the musicians.  The musicians work well together and have cultivated their own sound, they speak to the audience and each other which is something that I love. Euan explained during the gig that their second CD was titled New Focus: On Song because they were exploring the type of songwriting that makes people happy. Judging by the round of applause and the smiles on faces at the end of this gig that idea was definitely well translated into the music we heard.

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New Focus (Duo) are playing a free lunchtime concert this Friday, June 2nd, from 13:00-14:00 at Glasgow University.

The New Focus Quartet:  Konrad Wiszniewski – Tenor and Soprano Saxophones, Euan Stevenson – Piano,  Andrew Robb – Double Bass,  Alyn Cosker  – Drums and Percussion

 

 

New Focus

Here is another review of this great album…

The Rest is Jazz

On Song

There is on Corea Change a glorious double bass run by Andrew Robb intertwined by the machinations of Konrad Wiszniewski’s sax, brought to an abrupt conclusion by Euan Stevenson’s piano, which in fact bookends the number, encapsulating all that is magnificent about this second release from New Focus.

Throughout there is pure jazz, both sax and piano trading blows while knitted by a phenomenally paced bass, with Wiszniewski playing out of his skin. Now listen to the tracks on either side of Corea Change, Ascension and Braeside.

Ascension opens with a funereal violin before it is elevated by The Glasgow String Quartet, a tune that wouldn’t be out of place on an Ealing Studio soundtrack of the 1940’s, plaintively atmospheric and distinct from Corea Change.

Braeside is quintessentially chamber music, not dissimilar in tone or pace to Ascension, but the hallmark of On Song, with 13 original compositions…

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New Focus On Song

I first became aware of the New Focus sound when listening to the Jazz House on Radio Scotland and decided that I should see this band live.  Their sound stood out from the other tunes on the show as I felt there was a definite Scottish feel woven into the tunes. Luckily the chance arose on 30 April 2014 at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow for Unesco’s International day of Jazz. They appeared as part of the Stars of the Future billing playing work from their along with the Glasgow String Quartet, Andrew Sharkey on double bass and Alina Bzhezhinska on harp. It was a truly beautiful night. The Old Fruitmarket was perfectly lit, the music was amazing I bought their CD (also titled New Focus) and I decided I would follow this New Focus project avidly to see what else they would do.

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New Focus have just released a CD called New Focus On Song and I was so happy to hear that they will be playing live at the Tolbooth in Stirling (my local venue). Even better the CD has a tune on which  I heard the New Focus Quartet (Euan Stevenson, Konrad Wiszniewski, Andrew Robb, Alyn Cosker) play live in March 2015 at one of the late night jazz sessions at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall and it got stuck in my head. The tune is called Sophia’s Song and it features Konrad playing the Celtic whistle as well as the sax.  It is a beautiful track.

New Focus On Song has a good mix of tunes which showcase beautiful melodies such as Green park and Flora, tunes with jazzier elements such as Corea Change and Fourths Ostinato. Fourths Ostinato also has an amazing drum solo by Alyn Cosker on it.  Braeside has a filmic feel to it and some tracks such as Ascension and its Reprise have a more classical feel to them.  The recording is beautifully clear and most of the tracks have really strong endings to them . The combination of instruments used in this project compliment each other and it is beautiful to hear the celtic whistle used on a couple of tunes.

Konrad let me ask him a few questions for WalkingBassBuzz recently:

How do you and Euan work together on New Focus? How does a track typically come together?

We have been playing together since 2005, so a lot of the time we will come in with a tune and start gigging it straight away.  Then over time it tends to get refined, little bits added here and there. Euan contributed the majority of tracks to this album and his arrangements for strings are top class.

What is it like working with Whirlwind recordings?

Whirlwind is a very exciting new label with a lot of very creative music going at the moment, so its great to be part of it once again.   Mike Janisch the founder and bassist on our first album is a powerhouse who is always pushing us forward and we’ve expanded out of Scotland, launching at the Pizza Express in London and also at the new concert hall King’s Place.

Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind Sophia’s Song?

Sophia’s song is written for my daughter Sophia.  I’ve always loved the sound of the Celtic whistle, we bought one on our honeymoon up in Skye five years ago.  I always wanted to incorporate this into a piece, and the melody came when I was babysitting Sophia one day, she loves music and always wants a shot on the whistle!

Some of the instruments used in New Focus such as the Celtic whistle and the harp lend a definite Scottish sound to the music. Do you think New Focus has an identifiable Scottish sound and is this achieved in ways other than instrumentation?

Our sound has evolved over the years reflecting our roots and influences.  We are both extremely proud of our heritage, the landscape of Scotland is  breathtaking and it always influences you artistically.  Norwegian Jazz has a very identifiable nod to the countries beauty, we’re the same but perhaps with a bit more of the Scottish party vibe!

There is so much good Jazz out there so rather than compete with it we just wanted to write honestly and where our hearts are.  A big theme of the album is family .  Euan’s piece Flora for his daughter always brings a tear to the audiences eye at gigs.

What do you get out of collaborating with musicians from different genres of music?

Working with the Glasgow string quartet is always a great experience.  They bring such finesse and musicianship to the project making you think about music in a different way. They can play anything you put in front of them but are always open to ideas and offering helpful advice.  The sound of the harp really sets things off as well, such a beautiful sound and very evocative.

The New Focus project started in 2012, do you see this collaboration continuing into the future?  Are there any plans?

Definitely, we’ve been working together on a regular basis for the last 10 years in many formats.  Its great to just keep putting music out there and hopefully moving forward at the same time. We’ve got quite a few tour dates already and looking into next year as well.

You studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachsetts. How did that experience shape you as a musician?

It was a great experience to study and just absorb as much as possible.  I’m still in touch with people I met and its great to see everyone’s careers going so well.

I miss Brass Jaw! Will you be working on anything with them in the future?

Yes, our next date is in October but not in Scotland unfortunately. We’re down at the Wakefield Jazz Club near Leeds.

We’ve all been working on different projects at the moment, Paul with his Duo with Steve Hamilton, Mikey on his new album and Allon with his dance project.  That’s been going for over ten years now which is brilliant.  Some fresh ideas and a new album!

What is on your ipod/phone/turntable/playlist currently?

I just got a new turntable recently so I’ve been digging out a lot of Vinyl that I’ve collected over the years.  I’m always looking for new music as well, so I make it a priority to listen to at least one new album every week.  I’ll check stuff out on spotify and make sure I buy it. There are some fabulous Scottish releases out there which are on my playlist: Paul Towndrow/ Steve Hamilton Duo “We Shine The Sun’,  Ben MacDonald Animus Quartet, Mikey Ower’s “Take A Moment Apart”, Tommy Smith’s “Modern Jacobite”, Ryan Quigley’s “ What Doesn’t Kill You”.  All great music that I’ve been listening to and show’s the wealth of Scotland’s musical talent.

Upcoming Dates:

3rd November, The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen (Quartet)

26 May 2017, The Tolbooth, Stirling (Quartet) (orignally November 4th 2016 but has been rescheduled)

You can check out New Focus and their music here.