Empirical go to the movies, plus the Hot 8
By JON GARELICK  |  July 28, 2008

PICTORIAL: Movies and visual imagery inspire Empirical as much as does music.

Talking with Nathaniel Facey, the 25-year-old alto-saxophonist in the London band Empirical, you find it difficult at first to pin down where and how the quintet (who play the Newport Jazz Festival August 10) developed their unusual compositional style. Some tunes have a straight-ahead post-bop feel, like Facey’s “Blessing”; with its standard song form mixed up with contrary keys and rhythms, it’s bright and hooky, like a cross between Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation” and Miles Davis’s take on “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Other numbers, like Facey’s “Palantir” and pianist Kit Downes’s “Dark Lady,” are episodic marvels, one theme supplanted by another, each solo with its own background setting in the shifting textures of the piece. Although all five players in Empirical impress, it’s the writing that impresses most on their homonymous debut — the piquant ensemble voicings, the unfolding narrative structures.

Over the phone from London, Facey names an array of influences: Wayne Shorter (“particularly his current quartet”), Steve Coleman, Tim Berne. All of these offer keys to the band’s individual playing, even particular rhythmic or harmonic devices. But they don’t explain “Palantir,” whose 16-minute length is more the result of detailed writing than any extended solo passages.

“I think it’s a lot of things,” says Facey. “But we’re all fans of films and visual arts. For myself, I really love films and animation, as well as the dramatic nature of film music. That’s something that’s an inspiration: the more creative scores and really nice films. The music of The Lord of the Rings [Howard Shore] is really great, Pan’s Labyrinth [Javier Navarrete] as well. So there’s definitely the pictorial thing, as well as trying to conjure imagery or play in a really dramatic way.”

“Palantir” was inspired in part by “the mystical seeing stone” of that name from The Lord of the Rings. (Facey says he was watching the DVDs of the movie during the piece’s gestation.) Drummer Shaney Forbes’s “Kite” conjures the flight of a hawk over the Tuscan town of Vinci; it’s dedicated to Leonardo. Phelps’s lovely ballad “Clapton Willow” is about a district in Northeast London (not the guitar god) and a willow tree that lends a sense of calm to the troubled neighborhood.

Empirical is a cooperative venture — and it sounds like one. Here’s the ensemble balance and attention to tone and detail that Wynton Marsalis began to reintroduce into jazz beginning with 1988’s The Majesty of the Blues combined with the blurred mix of through-composition and improvisation that were a hallmark of Andrew Hill (another band hero). Facey and Jay Phelps are capable of ripping through the theme of Downes’s up-tempo “Fat Cat” in the kind of bebop unison sax/trumpet pairing that’s been standard since Bird and Diz. But just as often, the writing places them in carefully poised voicings — the hop-scotching counterlines of “Palantir” and especially “Dark Lady.”

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