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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Blank Slate Full of Ideas., 26 Aug 2013
By 
Bruce "from Brighton" (UK - England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Tabula Rasa (Audio CD)
In the CD liner notes and a recent Jazzwise interview, the band explained why they called themselves "Empirical" and what they mean by it : "To gather information through experimentation and observation". So here we have their latest experiment - a collaboration with the Benyounes Quartet, a new string quartet the band met during a tenure as Golubovich Jazz Scholars at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

The album is made up of original compositions from the band and the strings are mostly involved with the composed parts and don't get so involved in the improvising - which is left to the core quartet of alto sax, vibes, bass and drums. The string quartet tend to play together, acting as one new facet to the sound - rather than playing individually - but there are times when more than one line is heard - to create harmonies or like classical counterpoint or fugue.

At some points, when vibes or sax join the harmony created by the strings - the whole effect then is of a much larger ensemble. But there are some tracks when you just hear the core band and it's almost disappointing - you wait to hear the colour the strings impart to proceedings.

There are many interesting compositions here and the collaboration seems to have sparked different styles of music from the band. I particularly liked the way vibes worked with the strings in repeating arpeggios, echoing minimalist music - while at other times the strings alone, sound closer to the sound world of Olivier Messiaen. When the bass and drums are to the fore - it reminds me more of Dave Holland's quintets, which include vibes.

It's difficult to describe this music and in many ways this is "difficult" music, with quirky rhythms and compositions - it's a long way from Jazz roots and has a lot of European art music as influences. There is a lot to like here - but it's a long double album - 97 minutes - so you would expect to find something you like, but it may be that the band have over-stretched themselves?

Many sections of improvisation sound similar to others on the album. As the strings don't solo - it's down to mostly sax and vibes to take the lead and it's quite difficult to make so much time sound distinctive. The composed parts with the strings are what make this albums worthwhile and are the parts that draw your ear in. I also struggled a bit with the "boxy" and dry acoustic that has been used - it feels a bit claustrophobic. Personally I would have liked more reverberation and a wider sound picture. Drums at times sound muffled and the acoustic, makes the strings sound thin and possibly "sour".

I can see though that it must have been difficult to find a sound that suited the whole ensemble - but it just slightly spoiled what is a very interesting concept and some wonderful musical ideas. I think this will take a few listens and some tracks work better than others - but the "experiment" has certainly been worthwhile and I'm glad to have heard this. This is certainly not a blank slate and it is full of ideas and wonderful music.
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