Empirical – Connection
(Cuneiform Records RUNE416. CD Review by Dan Bergsagel)
As cover artwork goes it is minimal: four unidentified bare forearms grasp each other, interlocked in a reciprocal system. Yet the visually crisp lack of redundancy, the reliance on one another, the faceless structure sums up the tight, coherent group performance that Empirical have assembled on their latest release, Connection.
The aptly named Initiate the Initiations opens the track-list with a patient percussive introduction, the band sneaking in with traps, clicks and cowbells. The layered rhythms smoothly switch to staccato contributions from the rhythm section to form a looping backing for Nathaniel Facey's characteristic fluid vocal improvisation style, sporadically joining them on a repetitive note hook.
The saxophone flirtation between forming rhythm and holding melody continues into the launch of the jaunty Anxiety Society. Vibraphone melodies jump on the cohesive tireless drum and double bass backing before being let loose in Stay the course -A multi-faceted odyssey alternating washed treble vibraphones with tight Dolphy-esque interludes, swagger and swing. Facey's light-fingered sax melodies drift off to allow Lewis Wright to step to the fore, his vibraphone hurtling along like Balla's Dog on a Leash, dragging a band rushing behind him.
Driving Force and Lethe bring the mood to a more ethereal footing with sustained vibraphone chords holding on to a tactful Shaney Forbes rolling and jolting liquid alto melodies into life. The Maze shocks things back to life with rampaging unsettling beats and fantastically coordinated washes of sound from drums led by Tom Farmer's persistent rolling bass. The stop-start seat-of-your-pants journey of Card Clash.
The animated bass work continues with off-kilter doubled melodies alternating with confident grooves of Mind Over Mayhem. Languid alto lines pick their way over minimal tom taps before expansive vibes wind a beautiful cadence amongst it. The pensive atmospheric wash of It's Out of Your Hands closes the album, alto lines rising through a utopian rhythm-section soup with a swift Gil Evans tinge and an uplifting up-tempo latin shuffle finale.
Empirical may have their stylistic foot a half century in the past, but they certainly have their heads in the here and now. In their developments of the free jazz they're constantly striving to reach a new and wider audience (their unusual residency location choices highlighted in the interview with Tom Farmer covering their 2016 Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Ensemble - link below). They're achieving this partly by simply producing more concise recordings than their predecessors, and partly through the democratisation they operate within the band.
Facey and Wright are responsible for two of the album's stand-out tracks - Stay the Course and Mind Over Mayhem, respectively, however Farmer continues to grow into an intriguing composer and takes the lions share of the writing credits. Indeed Farmer's Initiate the Initiations and Card Clash in particular are two enduring pieces which have been with the group on-stage for a number of years and crystallise much of the sound associated with the band. It is really in this sense that Connections is such a success.
It is a rare recording that evolves much as a live set does. In this latest offering Empirical have gone some way to distilling their live intensity and collectivism into something we can take home with us.
LINK: Interview with Tom Farmer of Empirical and video of the Old Street pop-up gig