Like many of Empirical’s tunes, “Dark Lady” is eventful. After an impressionist piano intro, alto and piano state the ballad-tempo theme, then trumpet cuts into this slow dance, joining the piano on the melody while the sax stalks them in close harmony. A fast pattering drum-and-cymbal figure slides in beneath the slow dance, and before long the piano drops out and Facey is tearing off an agitated solo over fast-running bass (Neil Charles) and drums. The trumpet returns, playing the slow theme beneath the turmoil, then the piano joins with spare chords. There’s a break for the slow dance again, and a final free fanfare. Downes says in the liner notes that Ornette Coleman (specifically “Lonely Woman”) was an inspiration for the piece, and in that final fanfare, Facey offers a musical quote from the great man.
That only hints at the variety of rewards to be had on Empirical. Phelps has a dark, rounded tone, a bit like Miles Davis, especially in the lower registers. On his forward-thrusting “A Tyrant’s Tale,” following a Facey alto solo, everything slows down for a trumpet soliloquy over a tolling every-other-bar bass note and shimmery piano. Phelps fires off stabbing figures and muttering trills and rolls the notes around in his mouth as the arrangement comes to a boil behind him. (The piece is a post-9/11 meditation.) There’s also a cover of Ali Farka Toure’s “Tulumba,” with album producer Courtney Pine on bass clarinet. And the four opening notes of “Clapton Willow” recall “Blue Monk,” Charles’s bowed solo setting up a Mingus-like release into the ensemble.
Too much composition, and there’s no jazz. But Empirical offer another example of how writing can be used to avoid the standard 32-bar and 12-bar blues cycling of chord changes, one soloist after another. It’s an orchestral way to think about the small band — something you can hear in the groups of Kurt Rosenwinkel and Dave Douglas, or in Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band (another group scheduled for Newport). Steve Lacy used to say that Monk wrote interesting, hard tunes as a way to seduce his band into rehearsing. It’s also a way to seduce listeners.
A week ago Wednesday, the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Concerts in the Courtyard” series once again moved indoors to get out of the rain. It hardly mattered. The Hot 8 Brass Band, after some warming up, got Remis Auditorium rocking. This is a classic New Orleans parade band, actually numbering nine these days: three trumpets, two trombones, a tenor sax, bass drum, snare, and tuba. No bass (remember Woody Allen playing cello in the marching band?), no guitar, and only a bit of concert-hall cheating by using one floor-stand cymbal. The members were dressed in black pants, white shirts, black ties.
The Hot 8 are traditional, but they’re modern traditional. So the first song, the ancient “Bogalusa Strut,” harking back to the earliest New Orleans polyphony, was a precursor to a set that pulsed with funk, hip-hop, and second-line horniness. The exhortations for the audience to repair to the “designated physical expression areas” in front of and to the sides of the stage and up the aisles didn’t take hold at once, however — Remis is a tough room for dancing, and, it took the Hot 8 a few songs to find their groove. So there was Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya,” Bobby and Shirley Womack’s (and the Rolling Stones’) “It’s All Over Now” (both abetted by enthusiastic-if-casual vocals), some Latin grooves, and then funk (“Get Up”) that brought the band into focus: the polyrhythm of interlocking call-and-response riffs, high brass against low, and the second-line churn of tuba and drums.