The cover of London-based mixed-race jazz quartet Empirical’s fifth album, their first on renowned US label Cuneiform, who specialise in British and European jazz, emphasises not only the connection between the group’s black original members (Nathaniel Facey on alto sax, Shaney Forbes on drums, both also in Courtney Pine’s Afropeans) and white new members (Lewis Wright on vibes, Tom Farmer on bass), but also the connection they want to make with audiences.
The recording in 2015 was preceded by a free six-sets-in-six-nights gig at Ray’s Jazz in Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road, in acknowledgment of 1960s jazz bands who would play night after night. As Facey put it, ‘It’s nice having people realise that they don’t actually have to “understand” what we’re doing’. They even provided feedback forms, and would stay and chat with audiences after gigs. Then before the album’s release, they set up a free Pop-up Jazz Lounge residency last February in a shop in Old Street tube station, at which they did fifteen gigs in six days to a potential daily audience of 35,000, with support from the UK Arts Council as a pilot project, as well as holding open workshops and rehearsals. Late night sessions were scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and early birds were able to catch an 8am mid-week performance.
Their ultimate aim is to do a whole series of similar weeks all over the UK. Their sense of equality extends to having a different member introduce each track at these gigs, and although the personnel have changed completely from the original award-winning group on Empiricism in 2007, which featured established pianist Kit Downes, was produced by Courtney Pine, and strongly influenced by Eric Dolphy, the legacy continues in the current line-up, which began with 2009’s Out ‘n’ In, produced by ace sax-player Jason Yarde. That album incorporated non-western folk influences among other US influences such as Arthur Blythe, and included guest musician Julian Siegel on tenor sax and bass clarinet as a stand-in for Dolphy. The Benyounes String Quartet featured on their 2013 double album Tabula Rasa.
Now they’re back to basics, starting with ‘Initiate the Initiations’, featuring cow bells and Latin-sounding percussion under Facey’s alto, while Wright’s vibes come to the fore on ‘Anxiety Society’, and ‘Stay the Course’ stretches out to over seven minutes with Farmer’s bass underscoring events. Alto again takes precedence on ‘Driving Force’.‘Lethe’, one of the five rivers of the Hades underworld, meaning ‘oblivion’, is another seven-minute track featuring vibes and slowly-flowing alto, and ‘The Maze’ starts with clapping and uptempo vibes, with brisk alto and busy drums. ‘Card Clash’ is another uptempo post-bop number, featuring vibes, with languid sax, while ‘Two-Edged Sword’ is the shortest track at two and a half minutes, and is fast with it, while ‘Mind over Mayhem’ starts with bass and percussion, soon joined by alto and vibes in a sprightly mix. ‘It’s Out of Your Hands’ features vibes on reverb with a very sweet-sounding alto, and the final track is a ‘digital bonus track’ called ‘Fluid Flow’. Empirical is all about ‘gathering knowledge through experiment and observation’, and they seem to be staying the course well on that.