Enjoy Jazz, 13th Edition: Heidelberg/Mannheim/Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 27-November 1, 2011
The problem with hitting a festival on the first day, immediately after a long transatlantic flight and minimal sleep, is that no matter how good the act is, there are limits on how much the body can take. Having to leave Karlstorbahnhof Heidelberg after one set was certainly no reflection on Empirical's performance. This young, award-winning British quartet on the ascendancy has just released its third CD and, in a first set that combined material from Elements of Truth (NAIM, 2011) and its previous Out 'n' In (NAIM, 2009), proved capable of handling its own series of adverse circumstances. In an introduction before the group began the first of two sets, drummer Shaney Forbes described what is becoming the standard travel story for touring musicians: flight delays and missing gear.
Empirical, from left: Lewis Wright, Nathaniel Facey, Tom Famer, Shaney Forbes
If these problems had any impact, there was certainly no sign of it as the quartet slowly coalesced into Elements of Truth's opening track, "Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say," defining its aural space instantly. With bassist Tom Farmer and alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey whistling an oblique melody over vibraphonist Lewis Wright's ethereal cushion, the mood shifted suddenly as Wright began an angular, repetitive pattern, signaling a contrary-motion bass line and the entrance of Forbes, a powerhouse drummer, to be surenearly overflowing with ideasyet with the kind of superlative dynamic control that meant he never overwhelmed his band mates or the group's acoustic vibe.
It's rare to see a young group like this dressed out in suits and ties, but the influence of '60s-era Eric Dolphy clearly reigned over the quartet in more ways than one, with the alto/vibes/bass/drums lineup of the late innovator's groundbreaking Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964) a clear touchstone, even as the quartet retained its sense of modernity by incorporating elements of classical composer Olivier Messiaen and the heady cerebralism of pianists Andrew Hill and, more contemporary, Vijay Iyer. Farmer may remain largely in a supporting roleinteractive, to be sure, but more about creating a firm pulse around which Forbes could orbitbut as the primary writer on Elements of Truth (writing all but three of its ten tracks, an increase from his more egalitarian split with Facey on Out 'n' In), his importance in defining Empirical's sound has become increasingly clear.
If Empirical's set leaned towards an intellectual kind of expressionism that rarely settled into a steady rhythmForbes' fluid approach mirroring the late Tony Williams' ability to oftentimes suggest a groove without actually playing it, even more noticeable liveit still proved capable of lighting a fire later in the set, when it delivered an incendiary version of Dolphy's "Gazzeloni," where Facey managed its broad intervallic leaps with effortless aplomb, bolstered by the strongest swing of the set from Farmer and Forbes. Liberally relying on his instrument's sustain pedal to create self-supporting atmospheric voicings, Wright's solo demonstrated the kind of restraint that is also rare amongst musicians his age, as he delivered quirky motifs where space was an equal component, while proving his virtuosity with occasional lightning-fast bursts. In his only solo of the set, Farmer's penchant for pulse remained integral, while Facey incorporated brief multiphonic moments that suggested an even more outré disposition.
Elsewhere, Facey's "A Bitter End for a Tender Giant" was a suitably dark ballad that reflected the tragic and outrageous circumstances surrounding Dolphy's death at the age of 36collapsing into a diabetic coma while on tour in Europe in 1964, just nine days after his birthday on June 20, the reed player was left untreated in a hospital under the assumption that, as an African American jazz musician, he had, instead, overdosed on drugs. Trading fire for visceral restraint, Facey's playing hereas was the case throughout Empirical's setreflected a more thoughtful and less recklessly unbound approach that, nevertheless, possessed plenty of heart and soul.
From left: Tom Farmer, Shaney Forbes
Already recognized at home, having won the Best Jazz Act in the 2010 MOBO Awards, Empirical has already begun to conquer the international market, with exposure at festivals ranging from Norway's Molde Jazz Festival to New York's JVC Festival and the prestigious Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. With performances like its first set at Enjoy Jazz, Empirical's slow but steady upward trajectory promises even greater things to come.
With the limitless possibilities brought to contemporary improvised music through the integration of technology, it's now possible to work in the intimate context of a duo without sacrificing the more expansive sonics afforded by larger configurations. A simplistic look at the personnel on Duologix (Jazz 'n' Arts, 2011) might be deceptiveguitarist Claus Boesser Ferrari on acoustic guitars and electronics, and Thomas Siffling on trumpet, flugelhorn and electronicsbecause this duo is a far cry from the acoustic interactions of Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu on Chiaroscuro (ECM, 2009). Ferrari is, at least to some extent, informed by Towner, but is just as influenced by Bill FrisellDuologix even containing the duo's version of the title track to Frisell's Ghost Town (Nonesuch, 2000), which unfortunately was not part of the duo's set at Alte Feuerwache in Mannheim, a converted fire station that is now an arts venue with multiple performance spaces, studios, a restaurant and more.
Ferrari, whose main instrumenta road-tested, battle-worn six-string acoustic configured with two pickups, allowing him to pitch shift the lower two strings an octave down so that he can simultaneously sound like both a bassist and a guitaristis the electronic equivalent of American seven-string guitarist Charlie Hunter. Add to that his percussion self-support using the body of his guitar like a drumslapping it, as well as using the nails of his right handand an overall rhythmic approach to his playing, and Ferrari made it possible for the duo to manage plenty that a strict acoustic pairing could not. Siffling, a busy trumpeter in the Mannheim area, used a looping device, a pitch shifter (with harmonics, at times, approaching the sound of Jon Hassell and Nils Petter Molvaer) and more, in order to broaden his own sound world, but underneath it all he was clearly a fine player who would have been able to carry it off without the aid of his outboard gear.
The capacity crowd confirmed that this duo may not be known on an international level, but it sure has an enthusiastic local following, and in a set that combined soft lyricism (Uli Wagner's "Coming Home") with more energetic expressionism (Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue"), Ferrrari and Siffling demonstrated an easygoing comfort level with each other and the crowd, their sometimes lengthy introductions (in German, so unfortunately not understood) clearly entertaining and funny, based on the audience's response.
The set was not without its weak points. Ferrari was an impressive finger-style guitarist, fluid and big-toned (even without the electronics), but in a jazz context his vernacular was somewhat restricted. When the duo engaged in some completely extemporaneous free play, that limitation became something of a liability, especially when contrasted with Siffling, who clearly possessed a broader linguistic command. Still, what Ferrari lacked in language he made up for in enthusiasm and willingness to try anything, from placing a thin mallet beneath the strings to using it to strike the resonator of a dobro-style guitar.
The duo also took a look at a couple of iconic pop tunes. The Beatles' "Come Together" was more successful, if only because, while the duo's approach to the verse and intro vamp of Jazz Police's "Walking on the Moon" was intriguing, its delivery of the chorus was a little obvious and heavy-handed. Siffling's use of electronics throughout the set was, perhaps, rendered somewhat less inventive in light of artists like Molværwhose Baboon Moon is another step forward for the intrepid Norwegian trumpeter and his current triobut his layered "trumpet choir" at the start of "Tired Tiger" was certainly appealing. Most importantly, at the core of it was Siffling's undeniable ability as a trumpeter, with a pure tone that also transferred beautifully to flugelhorn.
Claus Boesser Ferrari
Ferrari's greatest skill was as an accompanist who, through the use of extended techniques and electronics, turned a single acoustic guitar into a virtual one-man band. If his acumen as a soloist was perhaps less impressive, it did little to detract from the entertainment quotient of the duo's set, which was so well received by the audience that one encore was simply not enough, the crowd clapping, hooting and hollering, compelling Ferrari and Siffling to return once more, for a more relaxed, crowd-subduing finale.