Empirical interview – life as one of the UK’s top young jazz groups


Bassist Tom Farmer and vibraphonist Lewis Wright, one half of jazz ensemble Empirical, chatted recently about their touring and recording lives, the new album Tabula Rasa, and some of the challenges facing young groups today.

What's a typical day for one of the UK's top young jazz groups?

Lewis: "Everyone piles round to mine mostly, and we spend a lot of time talking about music and really bouncing ideas off each other. If you trust the people you're with, those new ideas are really worth checking out. Then there's writing - we all contribute - and rehearsing. That's an average day.

Tom: "When we're not travelling, that is. In the last few weeks we've performed in Paris, Munich, Oslo - and Hull! It's worth doing one night at a premier club in each city, to establish ourselves in those key places.

Why collaborate with the Benyounes on Tabula Rasa?

Tom: "It's not really collaboration, they're playing our music - but we wrote it for eight people. It all came out of the Golubovich support. Part of our pitch was to work with a classical group and provide some sort of genre crossover that supported Trinity Laban's collaborative approach to music.

"So, from that we'd thought about writing some material for the Benyounes to perform for ages and then we had the opportunity to develop it further as part of CoLab [Trinity Laban's unique two week module to promote collaborative creative practice between artists].

"We met, and we got on - well, we were all on our best behavior - but it was easy, they're really lovely people. I had some ideas about what I thought might work but we needed to understand how they would feel about crossover and whether they felt up to playing our sort of material. I have to say I really enjoyed what it brought out in us - a quieter more sensitive type of music."

You're performing in Europe a lot…

Lewis; "There's a real difference between European and UK audiences. People in Europe go out in the evening and just try something new; they are more interested in taking a risk. We're not as well known in Europe and Munich is a key town - but our recent concert was packed and the audience was fantastic.

"I think that some people in the UK have a preconceived idea of what we are - post bop, purists, modern jazz, contemporary, avant garde. Frustratingly, it's industry standard to do this but it doesn't help - we're a mixture of a lot of different sounds and influences, don't try and lump us in one box and expect our music to sound the same with every new album.

Tom: "Our little bit of the music world is about experimentation and development. We don't sell loads of records; that's not the aim. It's about jazz being at the cutting edge of musical research. The meaning of the band is all about experimentation."

Lewis: "Unlike some other bands, we're really committed to each other. It's a collective project, and we contribute equally on everything - musical decisions, gigs, the albums, tours. We've been together five years, produced four albums and have no plans to put the brakes on."

And in ten years' time?

Tom: "We'll still be doing gigs, making records, trying out new sounds and building an audience."

Lewis: "Yes, an audience that knows who we are and want to see our music simply because they like what we do."

Saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, bassist Tom Farmer, and Trinity Laban alumni drummer Shaney Forbes and vibraphonist Lewis Wright make up Empirical, the first ever Golubovich Jazz Ensemble at Trinity Laban (2011-12).

They have produced their first double album, Tabula Rasa, which features the Benyounes Quartet (Trinity Laban's Richard Carne Junior Fellowship for String Quartet 2011-13).



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