Empirical is a British band, sponsored/mentored early on by saxophonist Courtney Pine but standing more or less on their own on this, their second album. I say “more or less” because the disc is a tribute to Eric Dolphy, and while it’s not one of the “[young guy(s)] play the music of [dead guy]” albums I decried the other day, they do play two of his best-known pieces, “Hat and Beard” and “Gazzelloni,” both from Out to Lunch and both, perhaps ironically, dedications by Dolphy to two other performers—Thelonious Monk and classical flautist Severino Gazzelloni, respectively.
The primary challenge of a record like this is figuring out who’s going to “be” the dedicatee, and Empirical solve that by splitting up the reed duties. Alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey is half the front line, alongside Julian Siegel on tenor sax and bass clarinet, and neither one engages in overt Dolphy imitation. The short (just under two minutes) alto/tenor piece “A Conversation” and its alto/bass clarinet counterpart, “Another Conversation,” reveals them both to be equally capable of squiggling and squealing, while other tracks demonstrate their keen, if relatively conventional, approach to melody. There’s some quacking and buzzing going on here and there, and some overdriven screeches on “Dolphyus Morphyus,” but for the most part Siegel and Facey play quite beautifully. “A Bitter End for a Tender Giant,” inspired by the circumstances of Dolphy’s death, is a showcase for vibraphonist Lewis Wright, with the horns drawing out slow, mournful lines.
Throughout the disc, the band maintains Dolphy-esque melodic and rhythmic concepts, lurching and occasionally even swinging, always in a chamber-jazzish manner that’s quite beautiful. The final track, “Bowden Out,” features repeated horn lines and a lightly dancing vibraphone, with drummer Shaney Forbes limiting himself to cymbal washes as Facey plays a mournful, almost New Orleans-esque solo with Siegel hovering behind him on bass clarinet. Bassist Tom Falmer, though rarely permitted to dominate proceedings, swings hard on “Syndicalism” and a few other tracks, and gets a brief solo “Interlude,” leading into the somewhat manic “Gazzelloni.” If you’re a fan of Dolphy’s work—and even if, like me, you prefer him as a guest on John Coltrane or Charles Mingus albums—this is an excellent and obviously heartfelt tribute by young, energetic players.
1. Do I foresee myself listening to this record again? Yes.
2. Should you buy this record? Yes.
Link to purchase, if you’re so inclined…