Empirical, Wiltshire Music Centre, Saturday 29th January

A demented bebop line with alto and vibes in lock-step, breezing through the twists, turns, chromaticisms and veering leaps into unexpected places, bass and insistent cymbal sketching out the racing swing feel: Empirical were back at the Wiltshire Music Centre and set off at a sprint.

As bass man Tom Farmer reminded us at one point, Empirical were artists-in-residence here for a year ‘before’, and they made a lot of friends. There was a good turn out for this gig, with a promised set of new material. All we had to go on was their reputation forged over a more than a decade now, of continual development and exploration, and attention grabbing intense performances as an ensemble. They didn’t disappoint.

The new material was written over lock-down, of course, and Farmer, drummer Shane Forbes and vibes man Lewis Wright all contributed compositions to the two sets. It made for a fascinatingly varied evening. After Wright’s frenetic opener The Talbot, the bass introduced a more spacious, atmospheric piece. It gradually built and swelled to a crescendo as Nathanial Facey‘s alto sax surfed chiming chords from the vibes. This was Farmer’s Ursa and the structure of the piece added to the unfolding drama. Forbes contributed a few pieces that seemed like jigsaws both as staccato, rhythmic phrases fitted together, and as different sections built up a picture in sound. Giants gave Wright a platform to pull out a scintillating solo, finding hints of wonky calypso has he took flight over a surging flood of rhythm from Forbes’ kit. Wright’s own She Moves Towards The Silence presented a striking contrast with an evocative folk-like theme and shifting harmony that invited flights of melodic invention from first Farmer then Facey. After another twisting tumultuous episode in Forbes’ Like Lambs, the drummer too showed his lyrical side, closing the gig with the beautifully evocative The Garden of Beginnings Facey weaving flowing lines through the cycling harmony They ended not with a bang, but a contemplative sigh.

These were well crafted, compelling pieces adding up to a thoroughly absorbing couple of sets. There’s an extra dusting of magic with this band though from the vitality of the performance. Forbes was a constant source of invention. The blood fizzing rhythm and clatter was there, but so too was colouring and and shading in sound, and almost melodic shaping of the kit’s contribution to each piece. Lewis Wright’s improvisation was a delight repeatedly, as ideas developed and built. Facey could be a dazzling and ebullient one moment and wispily tender the next and Farmer too showed his range with grooving, skipping bass lines, textural effects and gorgeously melodic improvisation.

This was top drawer jazz and a delight to see back at Wiltshire Music Centre.

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