Tag Archives: birmingham jazz

Empirical @ mac

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

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Nick Jurd Quartet @ Rush Hour Blues

Friday evenings in Birmingham always come with the promise of some spectacular entertainment in the form of Rush Hour Blues at Symphony Hall. Organised by Birmingham Jazz, this weekly session regularly features various jazz and blues artists from the city and further afield. The latest performance was from talented young bass player Nick Jurd, appearing in his quartet alongside other former Birmingham Conservatoire students.

The group displayed a captivating sense of unity in their set, performing a range of Jurd’s original compositions as well as inspired renditions of jazz standards. Mostly, their repertoire was ballad-like or medium swing paced, lulling the audience into a meditative state and providing a welcome contrast from the frenetic rush hour traffic seen through the foyer’s ceiling-high windows. Even some of the busier samba-feel numbers provided a laid-back sense of contemplation.

Despite the overall relaxed state of the music, many of the quartet’s pieces enclosed fascinatingly frenetic improvisation from each of the band. Nick Jurd in particular demonstrated skilful use of the higher register of his double bass, producing solos both melodically and rhythmically captivating. Alto saxophonist Rachel Cohen often chose a more sustained and emotive style her solos, whilst trumpeter Sam Wooster displayed both subtlety and ferocity in his playing, effectively combining with perfectly placed rhythmic interaction from Jim Bashford on drum kit.

Jurd’s softly spoken introduction to each tune and acknowledgement of his fellow musicians did much to maintain the mellow tone of the gig. One particular tune that will undoubtedly hit home with students of many different disciplines was Jurd’s own composition ‘Sorted’, a piece he recounts writing after graduating. This piece was, in line with the rest of the set, of a smooth, unrushed tempo, yet still expressed excitement: as he explained, it reflects a sense of accomplishment and an undeniable taste of freedom.

Interestingly for a band of this size, the quartet did not contain any chordal instruments such as a piano or guitar as would be expected to complete the texture of a traditional jazz combo. This lack of chords was slightly unusual to the ear at first, but as the set went on this supposed gap in the texture actually created a unique sense of space in the music: this allowed the subtleties of harmony from the bass and horn instruments to shine.

Nick Jurd and his quartet undeniably transfixed the large crowd that frequents the Rush Hour Blues sessions. With a captivating blend of precision playing and musical ingenuity, the group brought a tranquil end to the day in the otherwise bustling city centre. The next Rush Hour Blues instalment will feature the MHJQ Jazz Blues Trio on Friday 3rd February, 5.30-7pm. Admission is free, so there really isn’t a more ideal way to end your week.

Words by Anna Lumsden