(naimcd 193. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
‘Gathering knowledge through experiment and observation’ is how Empirical describe their approach to music. The quartet has also been gathering awards since they began in 2007. This line up has been together since 2009, and ‘Tabula Rasa’ is the third album they’ve recorded together. This time there are strings on half the 14 tracks- the Benyounes Quartet: Zara Benyounes and Emily Holland, violins, Sara Roberts, viola and Kim Vaughan, cello. Tabula Rasa means blank slate- Empirical invite us to listen with open minds. My brain, however, refuses to return to factory settings, and keeps thinking of Gunther Schuller’s compositions for the Modern Jazz Quartet. As in MJQ’s ‘Third Stream Music’, Empirical integrate jazz and Classical styles in their balance of structure and improvisation. Their suits are sharp and their harmonies modern.
Empirical’s approach is democratic and they’ve all written compositions for this double album. It opens with alto-player Nathaniel Facey‘s The Simple Light Shines Brightest, ‘finding beauty in simplicity’. There’s a restless, drum ‘n’ bass, almost Latin feel. The sweetness of the strings and Lewis Wright‘s vibes against Facey’s tough-edged alto sax is a delicious contrast, like eating strawberries with pepper. There’s some Eric Dolphy in Facey’s tone (a previous Empirical album was inspired by Dolphy and Bobby Hutcherson), and the uneasy intervals of Steve Coleman. There’s a bright, intriguing call and response among sax, vibes and strings. Facey’s One For ‘Bones’ Jones is dedicated to a martial arts champion. His muscular sax has Rollins-like twists, scratchy rushes of sound, and a superb drum solo from Shaney Forbes over repeated riffs. His Scoffie (The Moody One) – ‘cheeky, fun and humorous’ swings with strong walking bass from Tom Farmer, an Ornette Coleman-style bop theme, stalked by the ghost of Charlie Parker.
In Wright’s Bellsonian Scales (‘depicts an alter ego, outgoing and slightly mad’) the tune rises against the descending harmony, in spiky phrases over thundering drums. His The Prophet is perhaps the album’s most accessible piece, with percussive Steve Reichian vibes riffs, and dark bass, underpinning the folky theme on strings. The vibes become swoony and resonant, wafting luxuriously across the expressively spitting drum solo and fluttering Balkan alto. In The World In His Mind, the vibes create a glowing backdrop for Wright’s intricate Messiaen-like writing for the string quartet, before stretching out into a 7/4 groove with a stirring Coltrane-inspired sax solo.
Forbes’ Empiricism swings with gutsy cymbals and some Jackie McLean yearning in the alto tone, and exciting cross rhythms between vibes and Forbes’ African beats. His Where Wisdom Is Found mixes delicate Skrillex drum-styles with Latin grooves. Pizzicato strings and vibes create overtones like steel drums. His Repentance unravels long lines for strings, as lush as Delius, alternating with Philip Glass-like rhythmic string riffs.
Farmer’s Ascent and Descent are ‘two sides of a spiritual journey’. The first layers long, slow notes for the string quartet, with a frisson of high violins redolent of Arvo Part (no connection with Part’s own Tabula Rasa). The second has clusters of dissonant overlapping semitones, fragmenting into contrasting phrases. Farmer’s Studies In Time: The Healer opens with solo vibes: they combine the propulsion of a gamelan with the opulence of a harp, the sax like a pen line over the wash of sound. In his Studies In Mind: Relative, dislocated hiphoppy grooves gradually move out of phase with each other. Farmer’s Conflict in Our Time concludes the album with a strong emotional appeal, his bass pedals building tension as the chords never seem to resolve. The vibes are like a heat haze behind the Coltrane Ascension-ish sax.
The album is a strikingly original mélange of modern Classical and many jazz influences, from Parker to Dolphy and beyond; risk-taking, thoughtfully-composed and brilliantly-improvised. In a world of pick-up bands, Empirical’s intense commitment to each other and to their music is a wonderful thing.