Empirical, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London

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Empirical are a young British acoustic modern jazz quintet, whose choice of name sounds suspiciously like a reaction to the college courses they so recently attended.

Yet they have much in common with the jazz stars of old, who cut their teeth and formed alliances playing in commercial big bands and studios before rushing off to jam in dark corners. Although only in their twenties, the five musicians are hardly callow graduates, and their lists of credits include vocalists Amy Winehouse and Charlotte Church.

Over two sets, they impressively welded their range of influences and interests into a coherent whole, giving a nod to gospel, reggae and, in the second set, rearranging “Tulumba”, a composition by the Malian musician Ali Farka Toure.

They are most at ease flitting effortlessly between the steady pulse of a walking bass and the edgier rhythms of new-age soul and hip-hop.

Musically, they are very much a young band of the times – the second set’s “Clapton Willow” referenced the contrast between the sound of gunshots in Hackney and the stately willow that overhangs Clapton pond. Their ambitious original compositions are full of spiky interlocking riffs, sustained notes rhythmically displaced and quirky harmonies, and they are happiest building up a head of steam on extended modal grooves.

Here, Jay Phelps on trumpet projected brash professionalism with his slurred notes and confident articulation, and dovetailed neatly with Nathaniel Facey’s slightly fruity alto saxophone. And drummer Shane Forbes, the impressive Neil Charles on bass and pianist Kit Downes gave the soloists momentum. Slower compositions, including a seasonal hymnal ballad, were less successful.

But what I really liked about this band was their pleasure in a well-tempered experimentalism that had an ambience, if not a musical content, of the late 1950. This was reinforced in the final song by saxophonist Facey’s reference to Ornette Coleman’s searing ballad “Lonely Woman”
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