New Focus wasn’t far into the first set before it became obvious why their latest album is entitled On Song: their emphasis on the melodic, lyrical qualities of the music they play, whether their own or others’ compositions. In one sense, there’s nothing novel about this—the Great American Song Book, Broadway tunes and decades of jazz standards within the tradition itself are testament to that. But how improvising musicians structure the balance between the integrity of the original and the vibrancy of their inventions around it is one of the deep pleasures of jazz. New Focus has a way of placing melody at the heart of everything they play, without compromising their own, on-the-spot creativity.
Much of this was reflected in Ewan Stevenson’s piano. When the song required it, his playing never crowded the melodic line, but highlighted it with deftly chosen, and at times, even spacious harmonic support. This was quite demanding, because for all of the melodic sweetness on display, there wasn’t any shortage variety in tempo: both sets eschewed the familiar mix of hard-driving tunes interspersed with ballads; it was the singing quality of the numbers that characterised the programme.
The emphasis on singing lines made also made considerable demands on Konrad Wisniewski, but an individual of his abilities could handle it all with aplomb—and he did. His playing on soprano (an instrument that’s often deployed for swift, singing improvisations) was superb, but interestingly, his most intensely lyrical work was on tenor. Most tenor players can reach the very top of the register, but when they do so it’s usually to crescendo, before departing back to the safer registers. But Konrad was able to reach those heights and then stroll around, in the most remarkably sustained and controlled manner—all the while, working out wonderful inversions of the tune. At moments, it seemed as unlikely as walking on the ceiling.
It was no less difficult to believe that Mario Caribe and Doug Hough were both late substitutes to the original line-up, because their playing was so well integrated into Konrad and Euan’s partnership. And as the second set opened out into some more intense playing, the tunefulness remained but there was also great soloing from all four. This was a performance that didn’t ‘plateau’: we were all left on a high; and indeed, with a song in our hearts.
Konrad Wisniewski, soprano and tenor saxophones
Euan Stevenson, piano
Mario Caribe, bass
Doug Hough, drums
© J.Whitman 22nd October 2017