Empirical, Elements of Truth, reviewed in Phantom TollboothCerebral young jazz quartet mixes hard sax and spacey vibes

Label:     Naim
Time:     9 tracks / 53 minutes

These post-bop boys have been impressing the critics since their début was voted Jazzwise’s Album of the Year and Mojo’s Jazz album of the Year.

Following their Out ‘n’ In album, celebrating the work of Eric Dolphy, Empirical have moved on again with a sound that is both classic and individual.

“Yin and Yang” and “Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say,” for example, both develop their themes, particularly on Nathaniel Facey’s alto sax, with typical improvisational style. Yet having Lewis Wright full-time on vibraphone and glockenspiel adds a distinctive hue to their sound, reminiscent of Portico at times. It provides the album with a spacey and slightly spooky opening, which guest pianist George Fogel builds on before all four members (who also include drummer Shaney Forbes and bassist Tom Farmer) keep the musical ball in the air.

The disc is their “way of making sense of the world, reflected in the titles of the pieces, which are philosophies, proverbs or the intangible parts of life." So while the rather fine “In the Grill” is built around the idea of the space within a boxer’s reach (and begins with punchy sax jabs) it is also about having the conviction to go with your ideas.

The instrumental Elements of Truth has light and shade. The sax feels hard-edged against the softer vibes (whose percussive manner can tend to overshadow the discreet drums and bass). “Simple Things,” which hides its more involved rhythms behind an undemanding riff, and the similarly quiet “Out of Sight, Out of Mind (Part 1),” featuring sax and vibes, contrast with “An Ambiguous State of Mind,” written to involve Fogel, which rides over an irregular rhythm and builds into discordant backing and frenetic sax work.

Despite these contrasts, the tone feels fairly consistent throughout. It may be the lack of an outside producer, but the disc does give the impression that there is a greater variety to be had. When the second part of “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” returns after a twenty-minute tea break, it is not a different approach on the same theme, but a fade down and fade back in. So why break the track at all?

There is something mathematical about Empirical’s bold and clever music, eschewing some heart and fluidity in favour of a more cerebral approach to their craft. It is one for those who prefer their jazz cryptic, rather than quick.


Derek Walker