It was the last night of Empirical’s tour promoting their fourth album, Tabula Rasa, and they fooled around – not with the music of course but in their interaction with each other – in Empiricism, drums and bass made it almost impossible for the vibes to enter, he tried and then stepped back, only to return with gentle vengeance, a layer of shimmering sound like bubbles under water. In a beautifully shaped evening they reached back into their catalogue and gave us Eric Dolphy’s Gazzelloni from Out n In, and Yin & Yang and In the Grill from Elements of Truth and tasters from their latest double album. From the painful, shrieking Conflict in our Time to the sublime vibes in The Healer, the band showed they are masters of pacing, mood change and colour.
Of course we missed the elegant Benyounes String Quartet, who share the album and graced the album launch at the Purcell Room in October this year on tracks such as Ascent and Descent. Perhaps it was correct to omit such sublime compositions for our gig. But it only took thirty seconds for the old Empirical magic to grab me again, that sound that sends shivers down my spine. They are wonderful, exciting, to look at – it’s not just the suits, or Nathaniel’s elegant shoes with patent trim. No, it’s the graceful way that Tom moves his hand away from his bass in a gentle ark; the precision with which Lewis Wright places his mallets at right angles on the bars; the way Shaney Forbes’ drumsticks create lines in the air like the tracery of a Jackson Pollock, the minute attention lavished on his alto sax by Nathaniel Facey, every note the result of care and thought. And then there’s the sound, dizzying, disorientating, intoxicating, heady like an exotic bloom. It resonates through the floor, your seat, your rib cage, into your brain. They are quite like no other band for taking you to new places, stretching you, just go with them, their judgement is as impeccable as their tailoring!
Catch them in Cardiff at the Royal Welsh College of Music on 17 January 2014 and Birmingham CBSO on 18 January 2014. They are rare and special, and deserve the very best venues and acoustics.
Nathaniel Facey, alto saxophone
Lewis Wright, vibraphone
Tom Farmer, double bass
Shaney Forbes, drums
Mary James, 5 December 2013