Empirical and the Benyounes Quartet

CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK

A good turnout for this wet January “first of the season” night: the four men of Empirical in grey suits and ties and the “ladies” of the quartet in concert black. I do like a smart band. The audience were not, on the whole, so sharply dressed but the house was healthily full and they responded enthusiastically to Tom Farmer’s invitation to have an open mind to the new music. “We have been called a lot of things, many wrong, so… Tabula Rasa, [the title of the recent album being toured] means blank slate, open mind.”

It did not take a lot of mental effort to appreciate the music: it is lyrical, rhythmic, imaginative and various. It is complex but not difficult and the intended spirituality of the pieces is easily felt. Farmer’s Conflict In Our Time opened the show with a  powerful crescendo, the constant rumble from Shane Forbes’ tom toms below the lighter notes of his cymbals and snare and Lewis Wright’s vibes, Nathaniel Facey’s alto sax sweetly blown, never rasping, but always strong and making the title quite clear, before easing us back down again.

It  was a delight to watch composer Farmer listening to Wright play The Healer on the vibes, almost conducting with his hands and face as he  took in  every nuance of his colleague’s rendition of the melody, and then the drums, before he had to join on the bass in another great build up. The sax eventually came in, gently, bringing us back to the melody.

The tone of the project was thus established: but not the full sound. The Benyounes Quartet, led by Zara Benyounes (whose father is Algerian, in case you were wondering about  their name), provide both contrast and interplay with “the band”. Their first piece together, Facey’s The Simple Light Shines Brightest had variously vibes, bass and drums with strings, sax, a vibes solo with drums and bass augmenting, then the strings came back in before glorious interplay from all eight. An immediate audience favourite.

I particularly liked Ascent/Descent (Farmer) which started with slow, pastoral, strings, then sax added, before the strings, now a quintet as Tom Farmer took up his bow, showing some real attack. They ended the piece by following the  parts played by the jazz  band , the whole sounding very “contemporary classical”. Very fitting in the home of the BCMG and very much the sound of Tabula Rasa. This is good music, possibly great music. It breaks out of many jazz conventions.

Shane Forbes’ Repentance has only vibes and strings, “because it doesn’t need anything more”. Where Wisdom is Found (Facey) starts with a conventional jazz quartet arrangement … plus cello… and ends with vibes playing the theme while the other seven gently sing along.

And thus ended the show. The audience applauded enthusiastically, a few stood to emphasise their appreciation, There was no encore as there was no need for one. The performance was perfectly structured.

This was a Jazzlines concert.

  • The tour proper was last year. They saved some half dozen dates  this year for preferred  rooms and audiences, of which CBSO Centre was one. There are two nights remaining: 22 January at the Pizza Express, London, and 7 February at the  Brighton Dome.

Categories: Live review

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