Empirical ‘Connection’ CD/DIG (Cuneiform) 5/5

empiricalFurther to the release of their eponymous debut album in 2007, Empirical have firmly established themselves as a creative force, unafraid to challenge preconceptions of what jazz should be in the 21st century. The band have benefited from the same core line-up since 2009, with original members Nethaniel Facey on alto sax and Shaney Forbes on drums, joined by Lewis Wright on vibraphone and Tom Farmer on double bass. “Connection” is the fifth Empirical album, and the first to focus entirely on the quartet, without any guest musicians. There is such an open and honest interaction taking place throughout this recording, the resulting album standing out as one of their best, a feeling enhanced by the fact that the foursome appear to be relishing the chance to shine whilst simply focussing on the intuitively generated energy of writing and performing together as a unit. “Each of the previous albums was an experiment, where we included various guests from a string quartet to a pianist to bass clarinet.” bassist Farmer says. “This time we went into a great sounding studio with just the four of us. It’s an accurate representation of what we’re doing now, what our gigs sound like. This is our expression.” Farmer, Facey and Wright share the writer’s credits, but the thing that is immediately apparent when listening to this recording, is the telepathic-like connection all four band members appear to share. Often intricate and complex, the music is delivered in such a way that it is totally engrossing, whilst still emanating a genuine warmth and emotive spirit.

“Initiate the Initiations” opens the album, with its uber-cool contemporary edginess created by the percussive rhythmicality of the drums, intertwined with angular, sharply focussed sax. The vibes sound amazing on this recording, sometimes echoed and laid back, whilst at other times being crisp and vibrant. The clever interaction of all the instruments is a highlight, as witnessed on “Anxiety Society” with its Ornette Coleman feel, free-wheeling drums juxtaposed with spirited sax and lush vibes. There’s also a story-telling quality to much of the music, and on “Stay the Course”, it’s easy to hear the compositional skills of the writer unfolding in a glorious tale spinning way by all four members of the band. The aptly named “Driving Force” features Facey’s alto in full flow, at times sounding embittered and feisty, whilst at other times, as on the slower, more thoughtful “Lethe”, sincerely atmospheric and spiritual. The subtleties on this track from the quartet are astonishing, especially Wright’s vibes, creating a backdrop of ethereal ambience for the sax to tell it’s almost mournful, yet ultimately uplifting tale. The handclap opening to “The Maze” reminded me instantly of Pat Metheny’s “First Circle”, before developing into a freer bebop tone, with the band doing what they do so well throughout the album, interacting and changing pace seemingly at will. One can hear the likes of John Coltrane and Ornette Colman throughout this session, especially on tracks like “Card Clash” where the band could well be paying tribute to the two greats of jazz. The propulsive “The Two Edged Sword” is followed by the hard grooves of “Mind Over Mayhem”, with the tune taking twists and turns and changes of mood extremely skilfully along the way. The shimmering “It’s Out Of Your Hands” is an incredible piece of music, summing up so well what this quartet are capable of. From long, meandering, beautiful sax melodies, to sublime band interaction and sharply focussed devilish playfulness.

“Connection” is one hell of an album, with incredible musicianship paired with wonderfully inventive writing- a winning formula for sure. Empirical seem to go from strength to strength, and on this evidence are undoubtedly one the finest bands around at this moment in time, and hopefully for many years to come.

Mike Gates