Having become a big fan of saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski through his work with Brass Jaw and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, I have really been looking forward to this disc. And I haven’t been disappointed.
Wiszniewski and pianist Euan Stevenson have chosen to split the writing duties, and have added the Glasgow String Quartet, plus bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Alyn Cosker to play the music. But this is not a jazz quartet with strings – it feels more like an integrated octet, with the rhythm team often laying back in favour of the strings.
The sound of a tenor saxophone against strings is such a beguiling one, and Wiszniewski has a tone that works particularly well in this context – well, in any context, really – being rich and rounded, with a muscularity but also a deeply romantic streak. Just listen to him winding it up against the string pattern at the end of the opener, Nicola’s Piece. It’s spine-tingling stuff.
Stevenson is not only a tasteful and wholly sympathetic pianist, he’s a neat fit with Wiszniewski as a composer as well. Their pieces, which alternate in ones and twos, provide a satisfying flow to the album, giving it a nice arc.
So we move from the scene-setter of Nicola’s Piece, through the gentle Latin-tinged El Paraiso from Stevenson, and on to the steadily building groove and dark-harmonied strings of Wiszniewski’s For Ray, into a beautifully placed solo harp interlude written by Stevenson and played by Alina Bzhezhinska.
From there we enter Stevenson’s sweet-stringed elegy with Wiszniewski switching to soprano, which sounds like it should be the soundtrack for a bitter-sweet farewell between gorgeous lovers in an icy landscape, but which is in fact called Music For A Northern Mining Town, so giving us a completely new and refreshing conception. Music which changes the way one sees the world!
The pace and energy is once more heightened as saxophonist and pianist enjoy romping through Illuminate and then slowing through Dziadzio, both written by Wiszniewski. Stevenson’s pair of closers again highlight his lovely string writing, the soprano saxophone floating above them for Leonard’s Lament, and a waterfall of piano and harp starting the hurrying pace of Parsons Green. Cosker and Janisch get more room to move in the finale.
The Scottish influences in all this music are subtle, but they are there in the skirl of some of the melodies and the decoration both players add to the their lines, and overall it’s just such a melodic and sonic delight.
The title of the album is a nod to the fact that Wiszniewski and Stevenson came together to play some of the music from the Stan Getz with strings album, Focus. I listen to that album quite often, but I suspect it might be more often supplanted by this one in the coming months.