June 2008

Empirical: British Invasion

In January, launched by the concerted efforts of arts councils and media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, a platoon of more than 100 U.K. jazz musicians swarmed the 2008 conference for the International Association for Jazz Education in Toronto. Among them was a young quintet, Empirical, which reportedly lit up the joint with riveting performances, boldly announcing that Britain was a modern jazz force to be reckoned with. “That was the first time I’ve ever been at an IAJE Conference,” says alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey of Empirical. “It was a great experience, everything about it.”

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Andrew Lepley

Empirical

Of course, anyone familiar with legends such as Dave Holland, Norma Winstone or John McLaughlin realizes that jazz is as well ingrained in England as in other major European cultural centers, such as Copenhagen and Paris. Empirical, however, extends the legacy of the mighty Jazz Warriors from over two decades ago, a black big band incepted by saxophonist and heavyweight British jazz activist Courtney Pine. The Jazz Warriors shed light on the black British jazz scene, introducing the world not only to Pine but also to saxophonist Steve Williamson, singer Cleveland Watkiss and vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, among others. “As a black musician, Courtney has inspired a lot of young people, simply because England doesn’t have many black figures for kids to look up to,” observes Empirical’s Vancouver-born, London-based trumpeter Jay Phelps.

Facey adds, “To be quite frank, it’s not just the black musicians who owe Courtney a great deal, but all of them.”

After the Jazz Warriors disbanded, bassist Gary Crosby spearheaded Tomorrow’s Warriors in 1991. Realizing that many young black British jazz musicians were still edged onto the margins when it came to performance opportunities, he began holding weekly Tomorrow’s Warriors jam sessions at London’s Jazz Café. From that scene, Facey, Phelps and drummer Shaney Forbes eventually emerged and became the nucleus of Empirical.

“We’re a [racially] integrated [jazz] band, and one of the first integrated bands to come out of England,” Phelps claims. “But there are a number of young black jazz musicians coming up right now from Great Britain. Young brothers are practicing jazz in England, more so than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago.”

Formed in 2006, Empirical has already experienced some personnel changes, with current members pianist Kit Downes and bassist Tom Farmer replacing, respectively, John Escreet and Neil Charles. Nevertheless, the quintet boasts an iridescent modern sound, distinguished largely by a group empathy that quickly squashes any ideas of this fresh-faced, well-dressed group being the jazz equivalent of a pop boy band. Empirical’s eponymous debut (which includes Charles), released on Pine’s independent label Destin-E, exhibits the quintet’s prowess. It’s already racked up tons of rave reviews from Mojo, the Guardian and Jazzwise, the latter publication even calling it 2007’s “Album of the Year.”

In addition to each member’s formidable acumen and the group’s accord, a major plus to Empirical is its evocative originals, which all hint at modern bop but intermittently touch on West African, Puerto Rican, reggae and European classical music. “The main thing we’re focusing on is storytelling,” says Facey. “We try to play in a very pictorial way. On the album, all of the compositions have some kind of story behind them.”

“Also, it allows us to tell a story to the audience when we play live; we give people something to reflect on when we perform,” adds Phelps. “We try to be as informative as possible before we play our songs so that they can get a good grasp of what we’re trying to get across.”

Phelps and Facey not only serve as the frontline horns of Empirical, they also individually wrote the lion’s share of the album’s compositions. Facey’s tunes showcase his flinty tone and quicksilver improvisations to great effect, but also a keen knack for alluding to past jazz classics. His “Blessings” nods to Ornette Coleman’s “Rambling” with its fanciful melody, while his probing “The Deep” quotes John Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement.” Then there’s his jaunty “Palantir,” which bears a semblance to Steve Coleman’s “Drop Kick.”

“I find my songs generally start from the drums upwards,” Facey explains. “I rarely start off with a melody. The songs ‘The Deep’ and ‘Palantir’ have drums-based melodies and harmonies, then drums built on top. I also like juxtaposing different rhythms together.”

Fashioning a scintillating tone that sounds like a mixture of Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little and Terence Blanchard, Phelps cites his experience with Andrew Hill’s Anglo-American Jazz Orchestra as a significant guidepost for his compositions “A Tyrant’s Tale” and “Clapton Willow.” “From being able to hang out with Andrew and talk about composition, he gave me a lot of great inspiration,” Phelps says. “He really informed me on building themes, then mixing various ones, making them work together and bounce off of each other. I like having different melodies overlapping or being played consecutively.”

Forbes’ striking ballad “Kite” and Downes’ ebullient “Fat Cat” and cinematic CD bonus track “Dark Lady” round out the disc of memorable originals, with a captivating rendition of Ali Farka Touré’s “Tulumba” being the only cover. Empirical’s incursion across the Atlantic isn’t complete. With dates slated for the JVC Jazz Festival-New York and Canadian festival gigs in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, Empirical is staking its claim on the international jazz map.

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