Nathaniel Facey – alto sax
Tom Farmer – double bass
Lewis Wright – vibraphone
Shaney Forbes – drums
Half-way through the first set, it came to seem that listening to this wonderful band was the musical equivalent of gazing at a Cubist painting: all angles, planes and perspectives that somehow, intriguingly, made a coherent and compelling whole. It takes a band of consummate skill and musical intelligence to compose and perform in a manner which showcases instrumental talent without grandstanding; to execute sudden death rhythmic shifts while still maintaining the integrity of the song; and to range between chamber music exactitude and flat-out roar. Empirical is an all-star band, no question—but they have forged a musical approach that ensures that the brightest star is the band.
There was an emotional intensity to much of the music—a finely wrought combination of passion and precision, which came across regardless of the tempo. And in this particular every member of the band excelled, each contributing countless deft touches and pinpoint accuracy.
With such a dedication to the group sound, the band didn’t seem to have a centre of gravity, much though Nathaniel Facey’s alto playing was outstanding throughout. From tender to raucous, on sweetly melodic excursions and rapid-fire runs that could not be improved upon for precision and clarity, this was heart and soul playing.
With the inclusion of vibes rather than a piano, it would be a terrible understatement to say that Lewis Wright made a virtue of a necessity. He was able to exploit all of that instrument’s modes: percussive, melodic and rhythmic; and his restrained, effective use of strong reverberation added power and served as an atmospheric amplifier to some numbers. But as with all the best vibes players, it was his rhythmic adroitness that was most amazing. Of course, he worked very closely with drummer Shaney Forbes and bass player Tom Farmer to produce the ever-shifting rhythmic patterns which so characterised the evening. In many a rhythm + lead configuration, bass and drums can sometimes ease off while the spotlight dwells on the leader. It was a pleasure to mark the rhythmic shifts within the drumming itself even as the band pivoted; and what resourceful playing it was—at once both intense and un-showy.
Tom Farmer’s bass playing did not merely ‘underpin’ proceedings: it was integral—evident especially in the way in which the compositions and arrangements made so many different demands on his considerable talents.
Empirical have long held the music of the late Eric Dolphy in high esteem, but expressed as inspiration rather than homage; and one needn’t strain to hear echoes of Thelonious Monk, too. But they have a voice all their own—and the formidable gifts to make it heard. It was a superb evening of music-making.