been the driving force, all the time it has been super-into-music, at all times. That has propelled development [of the band] all the way through.”
In January 2008 the band caused a stir when it played the IAJE (International Association For Jazz Education) convention in Toronto. “It had a particular British theme, so there were a lot of British bands out there, it was really great,” recalls Farmer. However, their real American success came later in the year, when as a result of their appearance in the EBU Competition at the North Sea Festival, the band was invited to appear at several JVC festivals in north America. “They were really keen to put us on and get us to north America and Canada, and we kind of worked with them,” says Farmer. “To be honest we ended up losing money, but it was an incredible experience; we played all the JVC Jazz Festivals – Newport came later, that was a special trip to Newport – and we did Montreal, Vancouver, White Rock, Victoria, Toronto and the New York Jazz Festival where we supported The Bad Plus, which was incredible. But it was just so expensive and I think that’s part of the reason why British bands can’t do American tours is because it is just really prohibitively expensive because of the visas and the flights. Part of the deal in doing those festivals was that we got ourselves there, there were fees from the festivals of course, but they didn’t even cover the flights, amazingly! They are so far away these places, New York to Vancouver is as long as it is from London to New York, it’s incredible. But we persevered – I think it was definitely worth it. We had a great time, meeting so many great musicians and the music developed so much on that trip. Just playing on important stages, you have to raise your game so much when you’re on the same festivals as your heroes, you have to really work hard to make it sound good.
As a result, when we got back and started to play gigs back home the music had moved on a great deal, and had taken an interesting shape and direction because we had been playing together so music in an intensive amount of time. The difference between the recording [of Empirical] and what we were playing at the end of the North American trip was vastly different, it was like a different group, for the better I would hope! That was mostly from playing together, but we also had influences coming in from elsewhere – at that time we were all into Jason Moran and Wayne Shorter’s quartet – the new one. We’d play bits of the written material and leave other bits, the way the Wayne Shorter band works, you see them with big scores on the stand, but they’re mostly improvising and that was a big influence on us.”
After a period of such intense work together, the band were aware they had reached a high point in their development. “After we came back from Newport [the historic US jazz festival] I see that as the culmination of all our work, unheard of for a young British band to be performing on that stage. It kind of marked the end of all our hard work. After that Kit [Downes] wanted to do his own projects, and wanted to have his own bands, which he has been really successful with, of course. And Jay wanted to do the same thing, some different music, and it seemed like a logical point to make a move. We carried on, we had actually started playing with Lewis [Wright on vibes] before Jay left doing some Dolphy-style things, and we really liked it so we just carried on. That became the new line-up which is where we are at the moment.”
As one of the UK’s leading young bands, Empirical are ideally placed to comment on the state of the British jazz scene, and Tom Farmer offers his personal observations on the current scene. “If you look back to our heroes, the bands which are really thought to be the best ensembles that ever existed, the Miles Davis Quintet or the John Coltrane Quartet and they played 300-andwhatever gigs a year, they played together every night, three or four sets every night, and that is just simply impossible in today’s scene, those gigs do not exist. So I am really concerned that that level of performance within a group is never going to get there again. You get fleeting glimpses of it when you do a tour or when you’re going through a series of gigs or rehearsals and you suddenly feel things getting better and developing, and you get a little glimpse of what those guys must have had back in the day. It’s agonising because it’s impractical as there are not the opportunities to perform like that today.
“I don’t know what the solution is, other than funding the arts much better than at present. That’s not to say there’s not great music, it’s just different. It’s hard, you have to do a lot of other projects, you really do, you have to be versatile and you have to be able to play with other people and do a good job, that’s just the reality. It comes down to the fact that we have some great music colleges in London, the standard of graduates is so high now, everyone is able to express themselves and play complicated things, and play jazz really well. There’s so many people who can do that and so few gigs around, if you just stick to your own thing you simply cannot make enough money to live and that’s a fact.”
The combination of this over-supply of talented young jazz musicians and insufficient number of gigs to go around suggests the potential of the young UK jazz scene is not being realised in the way that perhaps it should be. “I’ve called it the hidden wealth of the UK jazz scene,” continues Farmer. “There is so much creative music being played in basement bars and it is never being given the light of day, it’s never given that opportunity to develop. It’s a problem, ‘the hidden wealth’. Everyone is so good, all my contemporaries have a band or project and have a musical voice and approach of such a high standard. Year after year you have another crop of exceptional musicians coming out of colleges, which is great – and it applies to classical music as well. But there simply aren’t enough jobs, it’s a saturated market, especially with cuts in Arts Council funding. Gigs are just disappearing so musicians are not being heard, they are not contributing to the culture of our society, and I think it is a terrible shame. I don’t know what the answer is – the scene is healthy, but at the same time it’s unhealthy, so many jazz musicians and no gigs. People have to hustle their own gigs and you have to create your own concerts; you have to create your own performance and bring your own audience, and all that takes time away from developing your art, and I don’t think that’s ideal. We talk about it a lot in Empirical, the state of things, and it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel at the moment.”
As if to complicate an already complicated situation, it is interesting to direct attention away from the musicians for a moment and focus on those to whom the music is directed – audiences.
How does jazz relate to a generation brought up on the ubiquitous iPod, a generation whose attention span, so social scientists tell us, is less than the previous generation? “We notice it in Empirical,” says Farmer.
“We’re trying to reach a wider audience and they do listen to iPods and they do listen to MP3s and it’s almost a constant discussion we have about how to present the music, and how to be true to what we think it should be but also bearing these things in mind.
“The big thing we talk about is that you can listen to any music in the world at the click of a button and that’s crazy – that’s mind blowing. How can you possibly decide what to listen to when you can access every record that’s ever been made, pretty much? That’s something we talk about a lot. We have made conscious decisions about the length of the album, the length of some pieces. A lot of the pieces stand on their own, so people can just listen to one track and get a reasonably full picture of what we do. So if you download our new album Elements of Truth from iTunes, we’re trying to get two bonus tracks you can’t get with the physical – with the physical you get a different bonus track! We have to adjust to those kind issues and being aware of these things is essential, but the bottom line is we have just made a jazz record and that’s our passion, that’s what drives us. The music.”
24 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise