Empirical Empirical Review

Album. Released 2008.  

BBC Review

Produced by Courtney Pine for his Destin-E label, the respected saxophonist is clearly...

Martin Longley 2008

This five-piece band are impressive upstarts on the British jazz scene, and are nominated in the Best Ensemble category of the 2008 BBC Jazz Awards. This debut disc's chief credit was surely being declared Album Of The Year in Jazzwise magazine's annual poll at the end of 2007. Produced by Courtney Pine for his Destin-E label, the respected saxophonist is clearly unequivocally championing the Empirical sound.

The band's approach mixes the classic sounds of both 1960s and 70s recordings for the famed Blue Note label. As well as extending their reach into an angular crying out of horns, it incorporates jazz extremity within a palatable, highly-structured framework. The line-up's front-line features two of the UK's brightest hopes for the future, already well-advanced in these days of their youth. Trumpeter Jay Phelps and alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey are both acrobatic solo displayers, cutting and fiery, and certainly not afraid of extended bouts of self-expression. They're joined by pianist Kit Downes, bassman Neil Charles and drummer Shane Forbes, although Tom Farmer has subsequently replaced Charles in the band's live incarnation.

Empirical have a strong complement of writers, with Phelps and Facey the chief contributors. The album's sole cover version is by the Malian singer-guitarist Ali Farka Touré, and is a remarkable choice. While it's simple to choose a tune from the global repertoire, so few jazz bands elect to venture into this territory. Tulumba is given a mournful South African quality, but also manages to sound strangely Celtic.

The opening Blessings provides a strutting fanfare, imbued with a New Orleans gait, establishing the outfit's tendency towards a kind of intellectual brashness. This seems to be their strategy for success: being adept formulators of substantial compositions, while maintaining an earthily low-down edge. Phelps makes A Tyrant's Tale into an 11-minute mini-suite, while Facey's The Deep includes vocal sections that invoke the image of a 1930s Hollywood Afro-epic, and Palantir showcases a particularly exhaustive saxophone solo. Several of their pieces move through suite-like phases, often vibrant with filmic imagery, with tales being told and grand events visualised whilst the sections unfold. Rarely is hard bebop played with such dramatic complexity.

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