Jazz Weekend In Old York
The National Centre For Early Music
York, England November 21-23, 2008
England's deeply historical city of York is far from being a jazz nexus, but its main alternative music venue does have an ongoing policy of presenting oneoff gigs in an atmospheric converted church space. The National Centre For Early Music also runs a specialized Jazz Weekend at least twice each year, usually focusing on significant artists on the UK scene, although rarely venturing across international waters. This small-scale activity can't really compare to the bigger, wider spreads of action in nearby Leeds (or even the coastal resort of Scarborough), but a feeling pervades that there isn't much of an audience for jazz in York, at least judging by the scarcity of gigs within its walls. A weekly jazz column in the local newspaper, The Press, always seems to be struggling to find events to fill its space, and is usually forced to look further afield, to smaller towns with slightly bigger scenes, whether traditional or post-bebop in nature.
Just the same, the audience for the first of these three nights of the NCEM's Jazz Weekend must have been close to sell-out status, and seats were also looking well-filled during the next two daysproof, surely, that there is a potential market for more jazz in York featuring British (or even American) big-name players.
There's been copious positive publicity surrounding the young Londoner combo Empirical, but most of the buzz emphasizes their energetic commitment to modernity, and is therefore unlikely to hold any appeal in the conservative lane of the gigging circuit. Even though Empirical are currently probing the legacy of a jazz composer's music from well over forty years ago, Eric Dolphy's pieces retain their completely current nature, making it all the more impressive how enthusiastically the music is received by a crowd that might not be accustomed to such rigorously complex sounds. If this sounds like a patronizing view, it's Leeds and not York that is well-known for its long-term support of avant-jazzing.
Gone is the repertoire presented on Empirical's debut album. Departed too are a pair of pivotal members (well, everyone is pivotal in such a precisely poised outfit). Their horn front-line formerly featured two of Britain's fastest rising flash-technicians, but trumpeter Jay Phelps is now concentrating on his own output, whilst pianist Kit Downes has returned to his studies. With bassist Tom Farmer already being a recent replacement, alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey and drummer Shaney Forbes are the remaining key players from this youthful combo's old guard. Nevertheless, a steely sense of empowered direction remains, and Empirical are now pushing their new Dolphy project, which will be recorded for an imminent album release in December 2008. It won't be so much a general overview of Dolphy as a direct engagement with Out To Lunch!, the reedsman's most well-known album, and surely his compositional and performing summit. A major help in the project's realization is the addition of new member Lewis Wright on the vibraphone, adopting the demanding Bobby Hutcherson role. Wright might look even more fresh-faced than his bandmates, but his virtuosic skills are already in keeping with those of a gig-wizened voyager of the highest order. He has the touch and control of a greater experience, striking with varied velocity, allowing notes to shimmer glowingly into a sensitive death.
Empirical might make its audiences tense. Dolphy's music is intricate and precise, so they're striking every note, meeting every twisting theme head-on, making no "mistakes." Rarely can such concentrated music succeed as "accessible" entertainment. Fortunately, the entire audience appears to be locked into Empirical and their Messianic mission, all the way. Even the quartet's original compositions are very much in the post- Dolphy spirit. There are astounding interpretations of "Gazzelloni," "Straight Up And Down" and "Out To Lunch!" itself, quite possibly three of the most cerebrally rousing compositions in the entire history of jazz. Empirical interprets them with pinpoint vigour and devout passion.