Forged from the fire of Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy’s angular bop, young British jazz band Empirical has been turning heads on the scene since emerging in 2007. Playing festivals and winning debut album awards put the quartet firmly on the map thanks to their inside-out traditional jazz. But since then, the band have grown in stature and confidence, turning their sights on a more expansive and uncompromising sound.
The quartet – featuring Nathaniel Facey (alto saxophone), Shaney Forbes (drums), Lewis Wright (vibraphone) and Tom Farmer (bass) – recently dropped new album Tabula Rasa on pioneering British label Naim Jazz. Shedding their piano player has helped the group to open up their arrangements, allowing Forbes to kick back into a more languid, abstract swing which quixotically anchors the band while Facey churns ahead with his fiery sax attacks.
We caught up with South London-born Facey for a chat about the band’s development and their upcoming UK dates…
For a band that stresses equality among its members and with each of you responsible for improvising and composing your own musical parts, how do you manage to sound so ‘together’?
For a start, we listen intensely to each other when we’re playing, feeding off each other’s ideas. We do lots of listening to a whole range of records of all styles. We like to question and analyse what makes them great. We’ve had many conversations about how the bands we like the most manage to interact and I think focusing on the methods of masters such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Duke Ellington helps elevate our own approach to making music as a band.
Some of Shaney’s drum work runs pretty close to sounding like a hip hop beat. And his loose, less-is-more approach really suits the tunes on your new album Tabula Rasa. Does his work behind the kit give you more freedom to roam with your saxophone lines?
Shaney’s work at the drums has always given me lots of freedom. He has an excellent sense of focus and is a great listener. He is hugely creative in all areas of his playing, giving massive scope to any improvisations as we are able to react and interact with one another on many levels: sonically, emotionally and rhythmically. Above all, he always wants to make everything he plays feel good. And because he always achieves this I always have freedom to roam freely, safe in the knowledge he trusts what I’m doing. Which is key.
You were in your twenties when you started the band and you were invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival. Did that seem incredible at the time?
Playing the Newport Jazz Festival was an amazing experience, one I’ll never forget and I hope to repeat at some point in the future! Being in a space so steeped in amazing musical history was both daunting and inspiring in equal measure. I felt privileged as there were some true masters and legends performing there, including Sonny Rollins who is a hero of mine – so it was definitely surreal!
As a fellow alto sax player, it sounds like Eric Dolphy has been a big influence. What specifically do you think you’ve learned from his work as a player or bandleader?
Eric Dolphy was a really creative guy with a very open musical mind. He was in many ways ahead of his time. I think a lot of people have, and still do, struggled to understand what he was doing musically. He reached an incredibly high level of expressive freedom and the tools he used for reaching these creative heights seem to me to be both complex while seeming simple, which isn’t easy. For example, on his greatest album – the Blue Note album Out To Lunch – he utilised short clear melodic phrases as jumping off points for his detailed improvisations. On the tune Hat And Beard he uses the melodic material – much like Thelonious Monk whom the tune is about – to form the initial basis/form for improvising and the melodies are used thematically, giving the music a very clear and strong identity. One of the many things I love about it is the freedom that the musicians have to take the material to other places while maintaining a strong relation to the tune’s melody. What I can see is that Dolphy had a clear idea about what he wanted to achieve musically and gave the musicians the freedom as well as structure to reach his goals. I think learning how to try and achieve this goal has been a big influence on me as a musician.
Tom (bass) says he believes the band lives to ‘take risks’ when playing – whether it’s improvising or just seeing where the music goes while writing. Without a pianist, it seems the band sounds both more open and more funky. Do you agree?
The band has a very different sound to when Kit Downes played piano with us for a number of reasons. The two instruments, piano and vibraphone, are obviously very different in what they can do. The piano has a very powerful presence not just in terms of its tone but also the amount notes you can play at once and the sound it can generate. What I love about playing with the vibes is the immediately percussive nature of it and the clarity of the tone. It matches up really well with the alto sax. The fact that Lewis is also a drummer brings a very strong rhythmic feel to the music. We’ve been playing together as a band for almost five years now so we’ve developed a strong dynamic that is both open and at times funky, for sure.
Suits. Ties. Waistcoats. Is looking fresh an important part of your live set? And is that a nod to the jazz legends of the past, such as Miles?
Dressing sharp is important to us. It is very much our look, but above all the music comes first and that’s really the main focus of our live set. We did make a conscious decision a long time ago to present ourselves in this way and I guess a part of it is a nod of respect to the masters like Miles, but also just really love wearing suits!
If Tabula Rasa means ‘blank slate’ do you feel like you’ve wiped the slate clean and relaxed from some of the complex and strict arrangements of previous album Elements of Truth? Does adding the string quartet on the new album allow you to add a bit more depth and warmth to your angular jazz?
Tabula Rasa is about the listener approaching the music with a ‘blank slate’ and allowing the music to wash over them without prejudging it. It is not really about us wiping the slate clean musically other than to say we try to approach each tune with a fresh outlook every time we play. Some of the arrangements can be viewed as complex because in many ways they are. But as Coltrane once said: “I openly enjoyed music long before I understood what a Gmin7th chord was…” Understanding that level of complexity in music shouldn’t hinder a listener’s ability to enjoy it. What does the music make you feel? We’re interested in asking this question and I feel that’s what is most important. We always play with the intuitive aim to make the music feel great. Adding the string quartet allowed us to utilise a different timbre to our sound and give us the opportunity to try out different things with improvising and composition. I think the strings bring an interesting new dynamic to our music and it has been fun trying to truly integrate them into what we do.
At your upcoming gigs at the Purcell Room tn the Southbank Centre and across the UK in October and November, will you concentrate on playing songs off Tabula Rasa? And when you play those tunes live, how much of the original song do you replicate or do you like to rework the tunes by improvising?
We will be playing primarily music from Tabula Rasa. We just try to bring fresh energy and ideas to each performance. For example, we’ll play the written material faithfully but try different kinds of dynamic variation or articulation as we play. The sections of pieces for improvisation are always open for us to travel in whatever direction we like. That said, I find the music always tells you what you can do and where you can go. I see each piece as a journey and one of the many beautiful things about jazz is the journey can be different every time you play a song.
Why did you pick up the alto sax in the first place? And you have spoken about the spiritual side of playing jazz and its emotional impact on the listener. How important is that to the band overall?
I picked up the alto sax because it looked and sounded so beautiful. I immediately felt a strong affinity for improvising and always felt that the alto was the instruments that I wanted to use to express myself. Music has always had a huge impact on me in an emotional and spiritual sense. From the beginning, my mind would always travel to wonderful, amazing places as a child and was always totally inspired by the sounds I heard. I love the fact that sound can tell an infinite amount of stories with infinite depth in ways that no other medium can. I love playing with Shaney, Tom and Lewis because among other things, they understand this. When we play we put our whole hearts into it and I hope that the listener can feel and relate to this.
Empirical’s upcoming dates include a stop at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room in London on 16 October 2013. More dates and information can be found at their website. The album Tabula Rasa is out now through Naim Jazz.