EMPIRICALS AT STAPLEFORD GRANARY
In the film La La Land, Ryan Gosling yearns to open a jazz club to play the kind of progressive music he adores. He gives up everything – including the love of his life – to follow this passion for jazz originality. But as the film’s cruel critics pointed out, he succeeded only in producing the average predictable polished repertoire. Not only did the musicians get no kind of billing in the gnat-sized credits at the end, the jazz was super average stuff.
Had those mega- rich movie moguls got their mitts on Empiricals, the entire story would have made sense. These chaps play the kind of imaginative music that’s impossible to replicate but magical to immerse yourself in.
Cool hardly covers the four amazing musicians who make up this extraordinary ensemble. Casually late on stage - ‘Jazz rules’, bassist Tom Farmer shrugged with a smile. This ensemble looked the part from the start. In the great tradition of sharp suits here was a line up to honour the fabulous forebears of the genre. Stylish smutter was always key for players from Art Blakeney to Miles Davis – the shoes perfect, the silhouette stylishly slick - the Empiricals gives the late greats a run for their money in the sartorial stakes.
Saturday night, and these much heralded London lads, together for more than ten years now, looked likely to lay on a good night out. They did not disappoint.
Their numbers switched the mood – Anxiety Society and Culture of Indifference blasted the rhythms of modern day life at their most frenetic. Shaney Forbes on drums sustained a super- human syncopation where the sticks were a fast blurr on the vision and the rhythm an enjoyable assault on the entire body. The brilliant cacophony created by Lewis Wright on vibraphone – two to three beaters in each hand – swelled the soundscape. Virbraphone a real treat of instrument btw – and weirdly it’s not even electronic. Deep below it all was a tremendous Tom Farmer on sensational double bass whilst alto-sax player-of-genius, Nathaniel Facey soared above with a sustained skill a match for Sonny Rollins in his heyday. If you felt like a lie down after that assault on the senses it would be little wonder.
But this band is not about noise for its own sake. Empiricals is an artistic collective. And they are clearly a democratic bunch. Each member has a composition to contribute – a phrase that’s often a prelude to some heart-sinking vague wander around the scales– but in their case each piece was individually fabulous.
Hard on the heels of quasi-depressive density, including Eric Dolphy’s Gazzelloni - came some pieces of lyrical sonority. One stand-out was Saxophonist Facey’s A Bitter End for a Tender Giant. It’s a heartbreaking reflection on the fate of Eric Dolphy himself, the group’s muse. In 1964 he was performing in Berlin. He collapsed in a diabetic coma and medics assumed this was just another black musician in the grip of a heroin overdose. They put him aside to recover. Of course he never did.
This tragic end of genius - Dolphy was an outlier in the jazz world, a total original - and he is the band’s inspiration It shows in all their work; his scope for individuality, the freedom of expression. Yet this piece by Nathaniel Facey is full of melodic intensity. It’s rare in jazz to get that tingle factor but here it was in the loveliness of the cadences and sadness of the expression. The Jazz Canon sometimes does feel a bit tired, great tunes endlessly interpreted. Empiricals wake jazz up to a musicality first initiated by Eric Dolphy but intrepidly interpreted by these brilliant young musicians into a whole artistic genre worthy of celebration.
Can there be such a thing as a musical morning after effect? Last night’s tonal landscape still buzzes in my head - a neurological sonic shakedown. Sometimes the senses need a thorough rinse through – for a delightful refresh of tired mental tropes; the Empiricals - with their combination of feeling and intellect do the job nicely.