Empirical: Empirical: Elements Of Truth

Chris May By

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Elements Of Truth

Naim Jazz


Empirical's second album, Out 'n' In (Naim, 2009), is a hard act to follow. The salute to reed player Eric Dolphy deservedly won the band Best Jazz Act in the 2010 MOBO Awards. Elements Of Truth rises confidently, if not wholly successfully, to the challenge set by its predecessor, and more about that in a moment. But first, the back story.

The MOBO award must have been a particularly sweet one for Empirical, for MOBO—the letters stand for Music Of Black Origin—exists, in the words of its mission statement, to celebrate the achievements of artists of "any ethnicity or nationality performing black music." Empirical's 2009 lineup, which also recorded Elements Of Truth, is half-black, half-white, and its music draws more closely on black heritage than that of many other young British bands. Out 'n' In and the band's debut, Empirical (Desin-E, 2007), were produced by leading black British saxophonists, Jason Yarde and Courtney Pine, respectively.

While MOBO's awards do not carry the clout of Britain's richest music prize, the Mercury Awards, MOBO's stature is rising—after a sticky patch. In 2006, MOBO dropped its jazz category in order to secure BBC television coverage: scheduling required the event to be shortened and so jazz was sacrificed. Such was the uproar created, including a musicians-led protest outside the Royal Albert Hall on the night of the awards ceremony, that it was reinstated the following year.

MOBO's 2006 decision is history now, but history needs to be remembered. And while there is, self evidently, nothing racially separatist or supremacist about Empirical, black musicians' massive contribution to the birth, development and continuing relevance of jazz is also a historical fact, and that, too, needs to be remembered.

From left: Nathaniel Facey, Tom Farmer, Lewis Wright, Shaney Forbes

So what of Empirical's 2011 album? The astringent yet visceral character of Out 'n' In is maintained on Elements Of Truth. The edgy melodies and arrangements are built around Nathaniel Facey's saxophone and its oft-vocalized tone, counterpointed by Lewis Wright's vibraphone and, while the band eschews simple grooves, bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Shaney Forbes lay down solid, propulsive motor rhythms. Guest pianist George Fogel is an unobrusive but valuable presence, grounding and filling out the harmonies. Inevitably with a band featuring an alto saxophone and vibraphone frontline, there are resonances with Dolphy's landmark album Out To Lunch (Blue Note, 1964), made with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. But also to be heard are the structural innovations of pianist Vijay Iyer, the elliptical orbits of pianist Andrew Hill and the harmonic morés of 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen.

Messiaen is, in 2011, the classical composer most frequently given a nod by young British jazz musicians, for reasons which are often obscure if not inaudible. His presence can, however, readily be felt on Elements Of Truth, most clearly in the spooky "Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say." Iyer's influence is also apparent here, as it is in the uneven meter and altered harmonies of "An Ambiguous State Of Mind." Both tunes were written by Farmer, the chief composer on this disc; there are two from Facey (who split Out 'n' In down the middle with Farmer) and one from Wright.

Unlike its predecessors, Elements Of Truth was produced by the band. It is a workmanlike job, as is Dave Moore's mix, but a mis-step. Production by committee is as perilous as design by committee, and the album has a rather samey, "democratic" feel running through it. A sympathetic autocrat might have produced a more dynamic programme of tracks. That said, even on a literal and linear recording, Empirical's music makes for a cracking disc.

Tracks: Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say; Yin & Yang; In The Grill; Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind Part 1; Cosmos (for Carl Sagan); Simple Things; An Ambiguous State Of Mind; The Element Of Truth; Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind Part 2.

Personnel: Nathaniel Facey: alto saxophone; Lewis Wright: vibraphone, glockenspiel; Tom Farmer: double bass; Shaney Forbes: drums. Guest: George Fogel: piano.

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Empirical

Title: Empirical: Elements Of Truth | Year Released: 2011


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