Nu Civilisation Orchestra with Nubya Garcia presents Stan Getz’s Focus
(Royal Festival Hall, 15 September 2023. Part of Nicholas Daley’s Woven Rhythms. Live review by John L. Walters)
Eddie Sauter’s LP-length, seven-part suite Focus was completed and recorded in 1961 by a studio orchestra (built around the Beaux-Arts String Quartet) with strings, harp, percussion and improvisations by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz (1927-91). This extraordinary recording is one of the most enduring examples of ‘Third Stream’, to use the term popularised by Gunter Schuller to describe the bringing together of classical music and jazz as another tributary within the delta of music-making.
Focus continues to cast its spell on listeners and performers alike. Performed in the second half of a concert by Nu Civilisation Orchestra (for ‘Woven Rhythms’) with soloist Nubya Garcia on tenor sax, the score created an atmosphere and soundworld all its own, from the stirring ‘I’m Late, I’m Late’ to the mellifluous closer, ‘A Summer Afternoon’.
Garcia was required to improvise above, around and within a through-composed score written specially for Getz, and she met the challenge with style. There’s an attractive toughness to Garcia’s sound, with a minimalist approach that occasionally recalls the late Wayne Shorter (who, like Getz, was always keen to collaborate with all manner of sounds and traditions).
The Nu Civilisation Orchestra is a spin-off from Tomorrow’s Warriors, the musical ‘family’ founded by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons that has played such a dynamic role in the lives of countless British musicians, composers and bands – including Shabaka Hutchings, Empirical, Ezra Collective and Garcia herself.
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Composer Eddie Sauter (1914-81) was a near contemporary of Gil Evans, who worked for the leading big bands of the 1940s and in the 1950s wrote literate, witty charts for the adventurous Sauter-Finegan Orchestra he founded with fellow arranger-composer Bill Finegan (1917-2008).
Sauter conceived of Focus as ‘seven different fairytales’ and drew upon myriad techniques of 20th-century string writing to imbue his score with the intensity of jazz and the energy and intimacy of superior string quartet writing. There are debts to Bartók and Stravinsky and echoes of Bernard Herrmann.
In ‘Night Rider’, riffy, pulsating string lines ensure an inspiring hybrid. Its insistent major chords, scratchy strumming and high-pitched pizzicatos give this movement a manic energy, at moments more like a freeform duet with Garcia’s sax. The other pieces in Focus are ‘Her’, ‘Pan’, the standard-like ‘I Remember When’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’, in which strings and sax dance around each other with the sprightly drama of a ballet score.
The concert’s first half featured new commissions: Ricochet by Peter Edwards and Chemy by Oleta Haffner. Both showed the inspiration of Focus while transcending its influence, with quite different approaches to rhythm. Chemy (conducted by Haffner) opened up several solo slots: a kind of concerto for improvising string orchestra. Both pieces benefited from the drumming of Romarna Campbell, whose quiet, sure touch and attractive timbres meshed well with strings and harp.
Campbell came into her own in Focus’s ‘I’m Late, I’m Late’, the only movement to use a full jazz kit (improvised on the original by Roy Haynes), and which includes two thrilling passages with just sax and drums. Alina Bzhezhinska’s harp was a sparky asset throughout and Scott Stroman, standing in at the last minute for Peter Edwards, was a genial and energetic conductor for Ricochet and Focus. The sound mix in the RFH was exemplary – we could hear every note.
After rapturous applause at the close of Focus, the orchestra reprised ‘Night Rider’ as an encore. Sauter once said: ‘I wanted this music to have soul; to have an element of truth in it, not just a display … I wanted to write pieces that had continuity of thought and shape.’ The term ‘Third Stream’ remains woefully imprecise when so much good work lies on a continuum between precise writing and unbridled improvisation, but the Nu Civilisation Orchestra’s championing of Focus – alongside fresh, younger voices – shows programmers, funding bodies, musicians, composers and audiences how much can be done within the generous spirit of jazz and its neighbours.