As I write, we are reaching sixty years since Stan Getz’s unique collaboration with composer Eddie Sauter produced the album ‘Focus’. During those six decades more than one sea change in music-making has transformed how we play and how we listen.
By the time I came across this music I had absorbed a lot of “Jazz-meets-Strings” and “Symphonic Jazz” repertoire, and Focus came across as a charming and eccentric time-piece. What would it be like, I thought, to revisit this strange crossing point of musical trajectories, over half a century on? Repeated listening to the 1961 recording confirmed to me how important it was, and I was hooked on the idea of creating new pieces, inspired by the old.
It’s not just the spirit of Focus that I wished to pay homage to, but the experimental urges of the early 1960s that were heard in jazz, film music, and the classical world – fuelled by romanticism and the burgeoning psychedelia of the new decade.
My themes are taken, sometimes quite loosely, from fragments that Stan improvised, and I was particularly interested in phrases that he played over Eddie Sauter’s string orchestra that lay beyond his established “cool bop” language.
Stan was able to free-wheel over much of Eddie’s string writing, a freedom I thought I’d emulate when I first sat at the piano with my scrap pad. However, as I worked, melodies would blossom and certain phrases would seem to nod both to the past and to the future, begging to be written in, and so my tenor sax part was born. Fortunately there are still plenty of spaces to blow and get away from the page, these moments often being the most memorable in a concert.
Such was the zeitgeist allure of Sauter’s opening track ‘I’m Late, I’m Late’, which pays homage to both Disney and Béla Bartók in unlikely marriage, that I just transcribed it, saxophone solo and all. This one-off “down-the-rabbit-hole” number was my homage to Focus and the jumping-off point to open the album.
This period really was the “dawning of the age of Aquarius”, and I am tempted to think we are at a new stage of awakening right now. We’re in a pandemic lockdown as I write, old systems creak and crumble as nature forces us to focus on its beauty as well as its vengeance.
There’s a sort of storybook quality to Focus that I love. Maybe it’s the romantic image we spin on the 1960s as much as the album itself. The strings on ‘ReFocus’ were recorded at the iconic Abbey Road Studios, during the same session that the chamber strings of ‘Weather Walker’ were put down. Whereas Weather Walker is music born out of our relationship with the vast outdoors, ReFocus feels like a series of reactions to beloved old photographs.
There are moments in our lives where crossing points or portals appear, to both past and possible future times. Such moments were to happen frequently during the making of this music. Over two years after recording the group, I added my tenor part. It was not recorded in a studio, but in the wing of a very old stately home we had rented when a house move fell through. This unplanned “crash-land” into such incongruous digs created the kind of ungrounded-ness that alters and quickens perception. I salvaged from storage enough recording components from my studio, set up my microphone next to the old fireplace and over a five day period pulled the enormous curtains over the windows and allowed myself to sink back into the musical web I’d spun two years earlier. As both composer and player, returning now in the role of saxophonist, that two year gap was useful. The memory of sweating over scores had subsided and it was during the intensity of these five days that what I had to say as a player truly merged with what I had to say as a writer.
Getz’s involvement with his recording of Focus was interrupted by the death of his mother, hence the dedication on the second track, ‘Her’. I, in turn, write this shortly after the passing of my own mother, and my second track, ‘Maternal,’ is dedicated to her with gratitude.
I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to look back and re-focus. Strong trees come from strong roots after all.
I’m particularly thankful to my fellow improvisers on this record, Asaf Sirkis and Yuri Goloubev. Throughout all the music on this recording, the immediacy and energy of their contribution is transformative. The bonus track, ‘Jezeppi’, gave me a chance to feature the wonderful playing of Ant Law and John Turville. The energy of this group feels so poignant to me now as we are all discouraged from making live ensemble music at this crazy time on planet earth. May this recording be a token of positivity and joy.
TG May 2020