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Recital Room, Glasgow City Halls, Saturday 14th November 2009

I don’t do star ratings on this blog. If I did, most gigs I review would probably get three or four stars out of a possible five. Empirical’s concert on Saturday night was unequivocally a five-star performance.

The pre-gig publicity for this gave the impression that the line-up would be a quintet, but on the night it turned out to be an alto sax, vibes, bass and drums quartet. Alto player Nathaniel Facey and drummer Shaney Forbes are founder members of Empirical and played on their debut album, while bassist Tom Farmer and vibes player Lewis Wright joined more recently. Their set was made up of music inspired by Eric Dolphy plus three pieces by Dolphy himself (two in the main set, one as encore).

The band weren’t imitators, though. The music came from the mid-60s Blue Note vibes-plus-horns freebop school which included Jackie McLean and Grachan Moncur as well as Dolphy: it wasn’t a case of them being “Still Out to Lunch”. I thought it was a clever touch that the two pieces they played from Out to Lunch itself (“Hat and Beard” and “Gazzeloni”) were ones on which Dolphy played bass clarinet or flute rather than alto. The encore, “245”, originally used piano rather than vibes, so again there was no risk of the band playing pale cover versions of the original.

Lewis Wright’s playing had some of the chiming sound and plentiful pauses of 1960s Bobby Hutcherson, but he wasn’t simply a copyist. That style of playing works really well as a background for a horn player to solo over. If I’d to single one soloist out, it would be Nathaniel Facey, whose alto playing always gripped the attention, but as with Mark McKnight’s group a week or so ago, the most impressive thing about Empirical was the way they played together as a unit. It wasn’t a case of Intro – Solo One – Solo Two – Outro. All the parts of each number flowed together organically. You were aware that, say, the sax had been taking the lead but had now stopped playing, while the vibes player who had been playing mainly chords was now playing more melodic lines. There wasn’t the sort of jerky stop-start feeling you sometimes get in less integrated performances. As a result, there wasn’t much applause for individual solos: but this was a tribute to the way the musicians worked as a group, not a criticism of the soloing.

The sound was very good, with none of the problems with the Recital Room’s echoey church-like acoustics which affect some performances.

Unfortunately, there was a worryingly small audience. I spotted an unusually large proportion of local musicians among the listeners: I hope this was an indication that those in the know realised that Empirical were a band not to be missed and not an indication of a lack of work for them elsewhere in the area.

To sum up: quite superb. One of the gigs of the year. You should have been there. But, alas, you almost certainly weren’t.

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