ALWAYS pushing, always challenging… progressive UK quartet Empirical strike out on their own with fifth studio album, Connection.
For almost a decade – and in this line-up since 2008 – Nathaniel Facey (alto sax), Lewis Wright (vibes), Tom Farmer (double bass) and Shaney Forbes (drums) have, in previous releases, sought to experiment and collaborate with other artists. But, as Farmer explains, “This time, we went into a great-sounding studio with just the four of us. Connection is an accurate representation of what we’re doing now, what our gigs sound like. This is our expression.” Indeed, by all accounts, their recent week-long ‘pop-up jazz lounge’ in a London Underground retail unit – an opportunity to introduce their sound to new audiences, for free – was a runaway success in terms of live jazz awareness and social media presence.
Ten original tracks, mostly composed by either Wright or Farmer, find the band in typically spirited, spiky vein, crafting an acoustically raw edge to all they do. Card Clash is a great example of their consummate flexibility in communication, skipping from jagged dissonance into infectious, lucid swing; and whilst alto sax and vibes may be expected to be the principal melodic voices here, it is in fact the democratic and dynamic parity of all four musicians which is key to their appeal, as the snappy rhythms, false endings and lightning riffs of Nathaniel Facey’s Stay the Course prove.
All manner of textures seem possible in this grouping, Lewis Wright’s vibraphone easily conjuring sustained ’60s MJQ (Lethe) or the effervescent brightness of Gary Burton (The Two-Edged Sword); and Facey’s alto can swing from hard-bop (Initiate the Initiations) to subtle exploration (Mind Over Mayhem). Yet the invention here is consistently contemporary, unpredictable and engaging. Announced by Steve Reichian clapping rhythms, Farmer’s The Maze darts, twists and flips to Wright’s similarly minimalist vibes repetition, picked up by the bassist with impossible rapidity; and Driving Force‘s burning mystery gradually unfolds across slowly-oscillating vibes, with Facey’s firecracker improv and Forbes’ brittle percussion breaking the smoothness of the surface.
The surprises are fast-arriving across these fifty-three minutes, Anxiety Society possessing an almost Clouseauian/Shot in the Dark quirkiness, thanks to its bobbing bass undercurrent, cheekily ticking percussion and characterful, anarchic alto; and the delicate vibraphone pools and cascades of closing number It’s Out of Your Hands are especially becalming until their confluence with the fast-flowing eddies of bass, drums and alto sax.
True to form, Empirical delight with their unadorned though particularly physical and creative approach to jazz, melding tradition with forward-facing fervour.
Released on 18 March 2016, Connection is available as CD or download from Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page.
Nathaniel Facey alto saxophone
Lewis Wright vibraphone
Tom Farmer double bass
Shaney Forbes drums
Cuneiform Records – RUNE 416 (2016)