Empirical – Nathaniel Facey (alto saxophone), Lewis Wright (vibraphone), Tom Farmer (double bass) & Shaney Forbes (drums)
Courtney Pine (soprano saxophone / alto flute / bass clarinet), Alex Wilson (piano), Darren Taylor (bass), Robert Fordjour (drums), Omar Puente (violin) & Cameron Pierre (guitar)
Reviewed by: Rob Witts
Reviewed: 20 November, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Young British band Empirical belong to the sharp-suited school of jazz, both literally and figuratively; their arrangements are as tight as their tailoring. This is no bad thing, and their smart post-bop style has drawn admiring notices on both sides of the Atlantic. The band arrived at the London Jazz Festival with an altered line-up, vibraphonist Lewis Wright replacing the trumpet and piano of Jay Phelps and Kit Downes, for a tribute to Eric Dolphy that unfortunately failed to show them at their best.
The set mixed Dolphy’s compositions with some new tunes by the band. The Dolphy numbers were almost all taken from “Out to Lunch” (Blue Note, 1964), a certified classic of progressive jazz. Empirical’s accounts of ‘Hat and Beard’ and ‘Something Sweet Something Tender’, while certainly faithful to the originals, seemed tame without Dolphy’s unmistakable sound. Nathaniel Facey is a gifted soloist with impressive chops, but his tone was too unremittingly declamatory, ringing out where he might do better to whisper, growl, gurgle or shriek. That said, the band had adapted Dolphy’s angular compositional style to several original numbers, with which they seemed more at home. The best things were a tightly-focussed ‘Gazzellioni’, and the closing ‘Straight Up Straight Down’, in which the excellent Wright went head-to-head with Shaney Forbes in an extended duel that raised the temperature by several degrees.
Courtney Pine would seem to be the reed-player with a far closer connection with Dolphy, certainly in terms of his multi-instrumentalism and boundary-pushing technique. However, Pine was himself busy paying tribute to Sidney Bechet in his generous set “Tradition in Transition”; not that I would have known this without being told! The new project seems to celebrate jazz as global melting-pot, rather than focussing on Bechet per se. This approach was great for the first few numbers, in which Pine’s bass clarinet worked up fearsome free-blowing climaxes in various exotic locations (New Orleans, a gypsy encampment), but after a time began to feel like a whistle-stop Cook’s Tour powered by Pine’s indefatigable soloing.
There were some great touches in the arrangements, and the band certainly matched Pine’s drive to get the room dancing (a goal finally achieved in the encore); but Alex Wilson’s sparky solos were hampered by astonishingly bad amplification, and there was an unfortunate sense of diminishing returns each time Pine ascended into the squealing stratosphere. By the time he came to play alto flute on what sounded like the theme to a 1970s’ children’s TV show, your correspondent was reaching for his ticket home.