This London jazz quartet crashes irresistibly through the decades on album three.
Daniel Spicer 2011
Empirical burst onto the UK jazz scene in 2007, with a self-titled debut album that proclaimed them the new young lions: feisty 20-somethings with bags of energy, studiously channelled into creating a distinctly retro style of acoustic jazz that owed more to late-50s/early-60s Blue Note recordings than it did to anything happening on the streets of 21st century London. During 2008, the band underwent line-up changes and took a step towards the leftfield with an ongoing project exploring the musical legacy of Eric Dolphy – aided by the recruitment of vibraphonist Lewis Wright, and culminating in the 2009 follow-up album Out ‘n’ In, which investigated the wonky mid-60s strut of Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. Now, with this third album, Empirical have come up to date – or at least as far as the 1990s.
Operating as a core quartet of Wright on vibes and glockenspiel, double-bassist Tom Farmer, alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey and drummer Shaney Forbes – plus special guest and long-time collaborator George Fogel on piano – Empirical have made a decisive move away from swinging jazz and closer to the kind of cerebral groove first outlined in New York in the late-80s/early-90s. In a way, it was inevitable they should follow this route: it’s an aesthetic that has continued to inspire young jazz musicians on both sides of the Atlantic just as much as those 60s recordings that first got Empirical fired-up.
Opener Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say centres around a circular vibes figure, launching into a zesty math-funk not dissimilar to the recent output of Chicago’s minimalist-influenced Claudia Quintet. But it’s on tracks like In the Grill that the most obvious influence is heard, with jerky, fractured drums and Facey’s frenetic yet precise alto recalling the 80s experiments of M-Base artists such as Steve Coleman. There are other, more meditative moods at work, too – largely thanks to the diaphanous sonorities generated by the combination of piano and vibes. Cosmos (For Carl Sagan) makes a brief return to a Dolphy-ish limp before jettisoning into a spectral space walk, like Morton Feldman on an interstellar vacation.
Empirical are crashing irresistibly through the decades. Next stop, 21st century.