Last Saturday night saw the return of exuberant young quartet Empirical to Birmingham’s mac to perform a selection of pieces from their new release Elements of Truth. Echoing not only their musical influences but also their life philosophies in their playing, this band’s sound is something quite different from what you might usually expect from a small jazz ensemble.
As is customary for gigs in mac’s theatre, the audience awaits the performance in a low, blue light. In this case, just the near-silhouetted instruments appear on the stage; a double bass, drum kit and vibraphone all clustered tightly together in the centre. However, when Empirical took to the stage, this still, almost sombre image was soon forgotten, giving way to an instantly captivating rush of sound. The first tune, Out But In, began with clear-cut, angular melodies from Nathaniel Facey on alto saxophone, reflective of the sounds of horn players of the 1950s such as Charlie Parker and perhaps Ornette Coleman, as well as more modern players such as Martin Speake. What is most striking about these musicians is the way they play so tightly as a unit, underpinning each melody with stunning harmonic and rhythmic precision. This was apparent on rhythmically demanding tunes such as bassist Tom Farmer’s composition Simple Things, in which the motives, notes and textures appear uncomplicated, but are distributed in such a way over the pulse of the tempo that unique and mesmerising rhythms are created.
Each member of the quartet is seen to be equally responsible for the feel and texture of the music, the way the instruments layer to create the sound. This was particularly apparent in In the Grill, a tune entitled after a boxing reference in which the band place emphasis on spatial awareness in their playing, listening intently to the overall sound and adding their individual contributions accordingly. The vast array of colour tones that drummer Shaney Forbes achieved from the kit and cymbals in this piece and throughout the performance was especially fascinating, switching from using sticks, to mallets, to brushes, to his hands to create the right sound.
With an emphasis on well known sayings and philosophies for their music’s foundations, Empirical presented pieces such as like Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and the tune the new album takes it title from, The Element of Truth composed by Vibes player Lewis Wright. A stunning combination of ethereal, ringing chords with occasional striking dissonance, this thought provoking tune brought a wonderful clarity to the end of the set.
For anyone who believes that jazz is random, it just takes watching a band like Empirical to see how even the most free and unusual sounding jazz has solid underlying structure, underpinned by a precise sense of rhythm and patterns. Yet, equally, for anyone who is perhaps keen to intellectually decipher the exact, constant beat of such music, my advice would be to leave this to the experts. Empirical’s sound is both musically and intellectually experimental, pushing the boundaries of contemporary jazz. With a group of musicians so advanced their craft, the listener can entirely trust in them to deal with where the beat is (wherever it is) and just take pleasure in what is created.
Words by Anna Lumsden