I can still hear the roar that greeted the end of the performance by Empirical at the 2017 JazzFest Berlin, the reaction of an audience of around 1,000 people who instinctively recognised and responded to the skill, seriousness of purpose and inherent gift for drama emanating from a group of four British musicians of whom they previously knew little or nothing.
Last night I heard that roar again. Empirical were celebrating their 15 years together with a special performance in the very different and more intimate surroundings of the Vortex in Dalston, playing to another capacity crowd — this one already familiar with their history and their qualities.
Even as their appearances together have grown less frequent, the alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, the vibraphonist Lewis Wright, the bassist Tom Farmer and the drummer Shaney Forbes (above) have remained an adornment to the British scene. In their case, longevity has never equalled staleness. They are predictable only in the consistency of their high standards.
The co-operative nature of the band extends to sharing the provision of the repertoire. Each of the four contributes compositions that create a collective personality with roots in the music made by a select group of artists on the Blue Note label in the mid-’60s, a time when Bobby Hutcherson, Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy, Joe Chambers and others were forging something that applied the instincts of the avant-garde to the virtuosity of post-bop jazz. It was a special thing, a very demanding kind of music, but Empirical go far beyond trying to recreate it. Avoiding fashionable gestures, their music gains its freshness from its inherent quality, while the sense of drama ensures its grip on an audience.
I heard one set last night, which began with Facey’s serpentine “Stay the Course”, featuring a characteristically incendiary solo from Wright. Forbes’s “Like Lambs” was typical of the extended, multi-themed compositions in which they negotiate changes of trajectory with marvellous fluency, including a sizzling alto solo and climaxing with a drum improvisation that could quite reasonably be described as symphonic.
Dolphy’s hustling “Gazzelloni” introduced a guest, the tenor saxophonist Julian Siegel, an early colleague, influence and inspiration. After Farmer had introduced “Ursa” with a beautiful solo, Siegel switched to bass clarinet for “A Bitter End for a Tender Giant”, Facey’s lament for Dolphy, recreating the astringent blends with the bowed bass and the alto from the original version on the group’s second album, Out ‘n’ In, recorded in 2009.
However much longer they choose to continue their work together, Empirical deserve to be thought of as one of the greatest small groups in the entire history of British modern jazz, up there with the Joe Harriott Quintet, the Tubby Hayes Quartet of Mexican Green and whoever else you care to name. In their case, the secret is in balancing the music’s formidable intellectual knottiness with a priceless ability to use it to communicate emotion.
* Empirical’s recordings, including their most recent EP, Like Lambs, are on their Bandcamp page: http://www.empiricalmusic.bandcamp.com. The photograph of Shaney Forbes in Berlin in 2017 is by Camille Blake.