EMPIRICAL are back this month with their third album. The palindrome-loving band’s bassist TOM FARMER talks to STUART NICHOLSON about Empirical’s remarkable journey so far, from complete unknowns to international touring band with a trunkful of awards and plenty more to prove. It’s a story of numbers and words that rather appropriately, as Nicholson discovers, is never odd or even.
Empirical are getting serious. With a new album called Elements of Truth about to be released by the Naim label, the band who won last year’s MOBO award for best jazz act are set to become an even stronger presence on the UK jazz scene during the ensuing 12 months. “We’re really excited about the new album and the tours we’re lining up,” says bassist Tom Farmer. “We feel like we have had a year off, although we’ve done a few gigs, but we now have this album together and now it’s time to get serious.”
Recently selected as Golubovich Jazz Scholars, Empirical took up the prestigious post of artists-in-residence in the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance at the end of September. “We’re going to be dealing with students, giving master classes, performances, special collaborations, which is really exciting. We’re also doing a tour in February, March time – a regional tour and we’re going to Berlin and Cork before that in November, it’s really starting to happen for us, and with the new album out, it’s going to be a really exciting time.”
Elements Of Truth is the band’s third album, and their most mature statement to date, cementing their reputation as one of the most exciting bands on the UK jazz scene. In many ways it is a culmination of the various stages of evolution the band has been through – the unequivocal post-bop stance of their eponymously titled debut album, recorded in November 2006 and released on Courtney Pine’s Destin-e record label, followed by the freeer impulses inspired by Eric Dolphy’s seminal Out To Lunch that were explored on 2009’s Out ’n’ In. Listening to tracks such as ‘Yin & Yang’, or ‘In The Grill’ on their latest album, both written by Nathaniel Facey, or ‘Cosmos’ written by Tom Farmer who contributed seven compositions to the album, there is a sense of redefining the essence of Empirical – while they doff their cap to the jazz tradition with hard swinging urgency they also take account of the more contemporary stylings of Vijay Iyer and the influential Wayne Shorter Quartet while at the same time using the freedom principle in the same way a chef might use a tasty spice to add piquancy to a favourite dish.
An example of how the band now manage freedom and combine it with more contemporary influences such as Iyer is demonstrated on Tom Farmer’s composition, ‘Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say’. “Here I really tried to think of an idea first and then explain it in music,” he explains.
“I found myself saying this phrase, ‘Say what you mean, mean what you say,’ a lot. And it applies to music – especially free improvisation. The thinking is don’t waste any notes, don’t play notes you don’t mean to play or can’t explain why you are using them. So that was the thinking, and I thought I can capture this by having two sections, one where it’s free, where you say what you mean, and the other one, which is incredibly structured, where you have to mean what you say. This complicated structure comes from a palindromic number, because for me that has real meaning. The structure is not arbitrary, not made
‘The thinking is don’t waste any notes, don’t play notes you don’t mean to play or can’t explain why you are using them’ – TOM FARMER
up from odd times signatures all stuck together. This palindromic structure is inspired by Vijay Iyer who writes using numbers, so in the case of ‘Say What You Mean’ it’s 13, 8, 3, 8, 13. I thought, that’s an interesting number, it’s palindromic, so what would happen if the whole piece was based on that? So the whole structure, the improvising is palindromic, we trade choruses between three people, so that links into it, the form is nine-bars long, which you can divide equally into three, it is just interesting in its use of 13, 8, 3, 8, 13 – this came first and everything else came from it.”
Comprising Nathaniel Facey on alto saxophone, Lewis Wright on vibraphone, Tom Farmer on bass and Shaney Forbes on drums, Empirical are joined on the album by the return of pianist George Fogel. “With this new album we have got a guest, we got our friend George to come and play because we wanted to capture a little bit more of what we had before, only more expansive,” explains Tom Farmer. Fogel is heard to good effect on Farmer’s composition ‘Ambiguous State Of Mind’ which gets its title from a non-musical experience from Farmer’s school days, where the teacher set them an essay on Shakespeare. “As an example our teacher gave us some essays from the previous year,” says Farmer.
“It was one about Macbeth, and the opening line [of the essay] was ‘Madness is an ambiguous state of mind’, and for some reason it has always stuck in my head. I met George in college and we were into the same music, but I always thought he played ‘a bit mad’. I didn’t understand where his ideas came from, I couldn’t get into my head his kind of anarchy was still jazz and where it was coming from. So this piece tries to capture the idea of ‘madness’ in him and ‘Ambiguous State of Mind’ is what came out. The way I chose to do it musically was to have two chords superimposed on top of each other, Gm7 and Abm7, so all the notes in the chord Abm7 will fit in Gm7, and vice versa. But no matter what you play it’s always going to be dissonant and kind of ‘mad,’ and then I added a ‘mad’ rhythm that you can’t feel a regular pulse to, so it’s always unsettled, it never settles down. I think George plays brilliantly on it, he really captures the spirit, really expressive and those ideas that come out of him I still have no idea where they come from!”
Empirical burst on the jazz world when they won the EBU European Jazz Competition at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam on 14 July 2007. Back then the line-up had Nathaniel Facey’s alto paired with Jay Phelps’ trumpet, with a rhythm section comprising Kit Downes on piano, Tom Farmer on bass and Shaney Forbes on drums. “The thing that kind of cemented us together was the EBU competition, and we practised a lot for that – we were like practising three or four times a week together, which is great for a young band,” recalls Farmer. “It was really like the launch – a catapult – and we started taking it very seriously and we got management and an agent and so on.”
The band had originally been formed by Jay Phelps, Shaney Forbes and Nathaniel Facey, long-time friends who had been playing together for some while. When they recorded Empirical in 2006, Kit Downes was the pianist and Neil Charles was on bass, who was then replaced by Tom Farmer prior to the EBU Competition in 2007.
“When I joined them in 2007, we were all very much like-minded musicians, trying to make some good music,” recalls Farmer. “I was just out of music college and was really taken with the way these guys talked about music and really lived the music – it was almost alien to me. I was like an academic, really; studied really hard at college but then I came out, and Nathaniel and Jay were so moved by this music, it changed the way I thought about music. They were so up for playing all the time and checking gigs and stuff, and as soon as I joined some of that fed into my outlook on music. So that has always
22 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise