Together for just two years and barely out of music school, Empirical has already won several awards and played at the JVC Jazz Festival Newport. Some critics consider them one of the most exciting jazz combos to come out of the U.K. in recent years. Their sound is strongly reminiscent of 1960s and ’70s greats Eric Dolphy, Art Blakey, and Ornette Coleman, to whom they dedicated one of their songs, “Ornette Tribute.”
Empirical’s Empirical Called Exceptional
The group’s first album, titled Empirical, was released in 2007 on British jazz musician Courtney Pine’s Destin-e label. It was named Jazz album of the year by Mojo and Album of the year by Jazzwise. All but one of the songs on the album were composed by members of the group, but a listener could easily be led to believe that a song like “Clapton Willow,” for instance, is vintage Blue Note.
London Jazz Meets Malian Blues
Interestingly, the one cover on the album, “Tulumba,” is by guitarist Ali Farka Touré, who became an international success thanks to his ability to notice and musically point out the links between the rich traditional sounds of his native Mali and the American blues. Touré died in 2006 – the year Empirical began. Funk trombonist Dennis Rollins and saxophonist Courtney Pine both join the group on “Tulumba.”
Traces of Brass Bands and Hip-hop
The sixteen-and-a-half minute “Palantir” contains contemporary references, with hints of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, funk, hip-hop, and even Philip Glass. In an interview with The Guardian’s John Fordham, bass player Tom Farmer noted, “Empiricism is about observing and experimenting, not having a theory first and trying to prove it.” This attitude comes to the forefront in “Palantir.”
Out to Lunch! Inspires Out but in
More recently, Empirical has been writing material that is directly inspired by Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! The album, on Blue Note Records, came out in 1964, a few months before his tragic, untimely death. Dolphy was 36 when he died, and the musicians on Out to Lunch! were all very young (drummer Tony Williams was 19). The members of Empirical are quite young, too – no one is thirty yet. The group is calling the project Out but in. They’ve been playing the new material at shows, and plan to record it in the coming year.
The first track on Empirical’s first album, “Blessings,” is easily interpreted as thanks to the jazz greats that came before the combo. But the group’s members – Nathaniel Facey (saxophone), Tom Farmer (bass), Shaney Forbes (drums), Lewis Wright (vibraphone), and George Fogel (piano) – are taking the modern jazz lexicon in new directions, and many see this as a blessing, too.