There’s been a lot of hype about the British jazz group Empirical. The entire front line of Nat Facey, Jay Phelps and Kit Downes were each nominated in the rising star category in the recent BBC jazz awards – what are the chances of that happening again? A quartet tonight (no Phelps on trumpet) – with alto saxophone, piano, bass, and drums – Empirical are young and sharply dressed in a post-Wynton kind of way. Does that affect the music? Answers on a postcard or better still comment in a blog – preferably ours…
So, with such rising reputations, I had high expectations of their visit to Ipswich. Were they fulfilled? Not entirely, but the longer the performance went on, the better it got. They are accomplished musicians and play collectively, a welcome change from the all too frequent and predictable head-solo-applause-solo-applause pattern which can lessen one’s appreciation of some jazz clubs. They play original compositions and they play tunes by Eric Dolphy. There is nothing wrong with that, especially when you have an intriguingly deep alto player like Nathaniel Facey in the band. In fact, a tribute album to Eric Dolphy is planned for release next month.
The size of the crowd was encouraging for a Sunday night in Ipswich and although playing in a theatre, the rapport between audience and band felt good. The band at the start of the night commented on the quality of the sound following sound checks and their enthusiasm for playing. And yet, the first set left me disappointed. Was it good in individual parts rather than a whole, was it disjointed, was it too academic and clever? Not sure, maybe it was all of these things – but it left me unsure.
But what a transformation for the second set! More extended tunes, fire instead of ice, involvement replacing distance, emotion where there had been coldness. I felt engaged. The audience were happy and their applause brought an Eric Dolphy’ tune as an encore.
For me, this had been a night of two halves rescued by an enhanced and more unified team performance after the break. Must have been those half time oranges… We will be checking them out again in the New Year when they come to Fleece Jazz – this time with young vibes star Lewis Wright in tow.