(Video of New Focus at 2011 Edinburgh Festival)
Whirlwind Festival Day 2
(King’s Place, Friday 11 October. Review by Chris Parker)
Since Wisconsin-born bassist Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings first set up shop in 2009, with his own Purpose Built (still the label’s best seller), nearly 30 releases – many by emerging artists, some by established figures such as drummer Jeff Williams and composer Mike Gibbs – have been issued under its name.
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Showcasing all this music over three nights was always going to be a considerable challenge, so it was a smart move to kill four birds with one stone by forming a quartet of leaders – saxophonist George Crowley, pianist Tom Gibbs, bassist Euan Burton and drummer Dave Hamblett – and having them play material from each other’s albums. Given that the band (the Whirlwind Quartet) gelled beautifully from the off (Hamblett’s title-track from his album Light at Night), this process also highlighted the fact that the label has an identifiable house style that seems to take its cue from Janisch’s own bass playing: unpretentious, accessible, vibrant, communicative.
Whether they were addressing brisk scurries (Crowley’s ‘Marty McFly’ from his album Paper Universe), duo-tempo pieces (the sixth part of Burton’s suite Occurrences) or tender compositions inspired by young children (Gibbs’s ‘Rebecca Song’ from his Fear of Flying), the band demonstrated all the hallmarks of an established unit: mutual sensitivity, assurance, inventive spontaneity. Crowley proved an engaging and wittily self-deprecating presenter as well as a thoughtful soloist; Gibbs, moving easily between infectious jauntiness and more ruminative moods, tailored his contributions skilfully to the respective demands of each composition, and with Burton’s rich, full-toned bass complementing Hamblett’s whip-smart drumming, this was an absorbing, tight set from four considerable compositional talents.
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Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson, leading a jazz quartet (completed by Michael Janisch and drummer Andrew Bain) supplemented by a string quartet (Kinga Ujszászi, James Toll, Becky Hopkin and Louise McGonigle) and a harpist (Alina Bzrzinska), performed most of their self-composed 2011 album, entitled New Focus in honour of its chief inspiration, the 1961 Stan Getz album of Eddie Sauter compositions and arrangements for string ensemble and jazz trio. Sauter is on record as ‘hat[ing] the idea of a rhythm section with strings ... the sound of flat backgrounds with no meaning in themselves’, asserting that he wrote the material for Focus incorporating ‘space to move things’ because ‘the attack of a rhythm section and strings differs; one is sharp and the other is slow’.
Wiszniewski and Stevenson’s compositions reference everything from pit closures (‘Music for a Northern Mining Town’) and sentimental attachments to areas of London (‘Parsons Green’) to Scottish saxophonist Wiszniewski’s Polish roots (‘Dziadzio’), but they all share Sauter’s musical aim: to incorporate the ‘classical’ elements easily and unaffectedly into the ensemble sound rather than simply deploying them as a lush backdrop. Wiszniewski’s tenor, indeed, is imbued with enough lushness, sonorousness and affecting earnestness to render redundant any such qualities in the overall band sound, so the briskness, even occasional asperity, of pianist Stevenson’s string arrangements was well judged, and – like its celebrated template – New Focus is at once elegant and vigorous, and at times ravishingly beautiful.
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Phil Robson’s The Immeasurable Code was one of the brightest, most accomplished albums of 2011, featuring a relatively unconventional front-line combination of flutes (Gareth Lockrane), saxophone (Mark Turner on the recording, here Stan Sulzmann) and Robson’s multi-textured guitar, propelled by Michael Janisch and the tumultuous but admirably precise Cuban-born drummer Ernesto Simpson.
Time considerations forced the docking of the album’s material to its three opening tracks, ‘Nassarius Beads’, ‘Telepathy and Transmission’ and ‘Telegram’, plus the ballad ‘A Serenade’ and a concise, delightfully terse set-closing visit to ‘The Instant Message’, but Robson did find time to include a new piece, ‘Berlin’, which featured a telling solo from Janisch sensitively set against Simpson’s whispering brushes.
Musicianly precision, poise and resourcefulness regarding choice of texture are among Robson’s prodigious gifts as a guitarist, and they were all on display on this occasion, perfectly complemented by Lockrane’s unfussily virtuosic flute playing and Sulzmann’s tough, attractively sinewy but consistently graceful tenor.
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Overall, this was a pleasingly varied, enjoyable and entertaining evening’s music, amply demonstrating the truth of singer/promoter Georgia Mancio’s assessment of Janisch: ‘He performs, promotes and persists where others fear to tread’.