REVIEW: Andrew McCormack Trio, National Youth Jazz Collective, Empirical at the 2014 Kings Place Festival

Empirical. Photo from

Andrew McCormack Trio, National Youth Jazz Collective, Empirical 
(Jazz on the first day of the 8th annual Kings Place Festival. 12th September 2014. Round-up review by Dan Bergsagel)

In a normal office building you would expect tumbleweed to be rolling freely down the corridors by 6pm on a Friday evening, but Kings Place is anything but a normal office building. Last night it was groaning under the weight of visitors. In September 2008 Kings Place opened its doors to the public, and it has been welcoming us back en masse for their festival every autumn since. While the impressively diverse programme caters for all - whether interested in spoken word, classical or folk – jazz is strongly represented.

The Andrew McCormack Trio launched proceedings early in the evening, only to swiftly rebrand as the Andrew McCormack Duo when it became apparent that rush hour traffic had gotten the better of the drummer. As unsettling as this may have been, McCormack appeared unfazed as he led an intimate set. Assured in his musical style and relaxed in his audience approach, he led us through a series of his own compositions, many new and as yet untitled. His musical roots are comfortably set in the past, either in 1960s New York or late nineteenth century Mahler, which he happily deconstructed in some intense solo-piano moments.

The main atrium of the building hosted a septet from the The National Youth Jazz Collective, battling unforgiving acoustics to perform a mix of vocal and instrumental pieces to a receptive crowd. A project started by Issie Barratt eight years ago, the collective are moving on apace, and will be out and about again in force at the EFG London Jazz Festival in November.

A late 22h15 start saw Empirical take the stage with bassist Tom Farmer's chunky rhythmic opener Initiate the Initiations, building from a foot stamp to percussive contributions from the full quartet and then settling into a rich contrast between smooth sax and vibes interspersed with sharp, off-beat percussive moments.

The intense start was followed by the more leisurely paced Yin and Yang by saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, a vehicle for each member of the quartet to improvise in a safer environment before the frenetic vibe playing of Lewis Wright's piece followed close on the tail.

With the benefit of hindsight, and having seen the whole set, the collective percussion introduction had served as a reminder that the way Empirical choose to compose and perform is strongly collaborative. The writing credits were distributed among the group, with each musician taking their at centre stage to address the crowd, with the relaxed good humour of drummer Shaney Forbes, and the regular grins being exchanged across the stage between him and Wright portraying a group who enjoy themselves enormously throughout the concert.

Empirical may have truly made their name with their album Out 'n' in - their Eric Dolphy influence still evident on show stealing songs such as Card Clash - but their musical manifesto has broadened out tremendously. Their closing piece Conflict in our Time took us on a journey through styles (and Nathaniel Facey on a literal journey while he wandered through the audience stalls playing) as the group riffed through high-paced avant garde, rolling drums and walking bass, and calm introspective moments. On first impressions, their dapper dress-code  may appear a gimmick in this age of the more louche, free-spirited jazz musician, but it seems to symbolize the band unity which combines  Empirical together into such a powerful experimental force.

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