Focus recorded in 1961 was one of the most significant and mysterious collaborations in recorded jazz. At Stan Getz’s suggestion Eddie Sauter who had garnered a reputation as a cutting edge big band arranger composed a challenging seven part “third stream” or contemporary classical score for a string orchestra plus legendary drummer, Roy Haynes. Stan Getz’s role was to respond in real time to the orchestra with a series of bespoke and unscripted improvisations.
Getz’s biographer Dave Gelly quotes Stan describing his approach to Sauter,
“He was writing music for jingles for TV programmes. I thought, “Why should a man this great have to do things like that?” So, I asked him to write something for me. I said I don’t want any arrangements on standards, standards, jazz classics or anything. I want it to be all your own original music-something that you really believe in.
To which Sauter responded as follows,
“I hated the idea of a rhythm section with strings, and I also hated the idea off flat backgrounds with no meaning in themselves. I wanted to write like a string quartet with space to move things…let them make their own time and rhythm. I knew Stan would make it swing”.
And the rest is history.
As far as I know Stan Getz never played the piece in live performance. The recording took place over 2 sessions, the second immediately following the sudden death of Getz’s mother. Gelly quotes Getz as having spent the seven days of shiva (the period of Jewish ritual mourning) “in a drunken stupor”. Who would have guessed listening to Getz’s limpid, lyrical, and passionate playing throughout?
Dial forward 62 years to September 2023 and I made my way to London’s Royal Festival Hall, the standout architectural triumph from the 1951 Festival of Britain to hear new star tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra reprise the piece. I had been asked to review the concert for my local newspaper so hear it is. Hopefully the start of a new career as a jazz critic!
The 1961 recording of Focus a collaboration between star saxophonist Stan Getz and composer/arranger Eddie Sauter, has mythical status in jazz circles. Focus was a unique undertaking, a one-off fusion of contemporary classical “third stream” with a jazz sensibility provided by Stan Getz. Bringing together a large string orchestra with the lustrous but deeply troubled Getz at the peak of his powers. The piece was never played in public. The notoriously lugubrious Getz regarded it as his master work. And he was right, his improvisations soaring above the orchestra were truly remarkable. Focus is rightly regarded as one of the landmark recordings in the history of jazz.
Roll on 62 years and Camden’s own star saxophonist, Nubya Garcia chose to perform this uniquely challenging piece with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra at a packed Royal Festival Hall last Friday. This is a challenge that Nubya and the orchestra’s founder Gary Crosby have been plotting together for a number of years, ever since the teenage Garcia graduated from Tomorrow’s Warriors.
Garcia is a serious student of many of her great predecessors in jazz particularly Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins and she has clearly put in the hours going back to the original Getz/Sauter recording. The piece requires an outstanding saxophonist with an immediately recognisable tone and presence, to fashion a series of in-the-moment improvisations to reflect the score. And to do so without simply offering a poor copy of Getz’s original performance. Nubya Garcia rose to that challenge superbly. Her tone, her dynamic range, her intimate connection to the orchestra, her sensitivity and total command of her instrument all added up to a very distinctive and truly outstanding performance.
The Nu Civilization Orchestra who were superb throughout, playing with great passion and attention both to the detail and the spirit of the piece. Conductor Scott Stroman, a late replacement for the indisposed Peter Edwards led the orchestra with precision and dynamism.
Graeme Miall / Tomorrow’s Warriors
The evening’s performance began with two original compositions, Ricochet by Peter Edwards, and Chemy by Oleta Haffner. The Edwards composition had a more discernible jazz feel with short solo improvisations emerging from individual members of the orchestra. Chemy conducted enthusiastically by the composer had an elegiac feel to it, quite reminiscent in parts of Elgar. Both pieces were beautifully played.
Returning to Focus, this was Nubya Garcia nailing her jazz credentials and her emergence as a true jazz original on the world stage. Following so soon after Ezra Collective’s triumph at the Mercury London, and in Nubya’s case, Camden, can now increasingly claim to be home to some of the most compelling and exhilarating jazz to be found anywhere in the world.
Returning to Dave Gelly’s excellent Getz biography-Stan Getz-Nobody Else But Me I can’t resist reproducing the following potentially apocryphal quote,
Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins sitting stony-faced in a dark corner of a jazz club while a celebrated free saxophonist did his stuff. At last Hawkins turned to Getz and murmured “Stanley, he’s playing our song”.
The Playlist features the full Focus album with a short selection of Nubya Garcia tracks. Ending with a gorgeous rendition of Sweet Rain by Stan Getz.