Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Out but In: Between Discourse and Practice in a London Jazz Quartet

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Out but In: Between Discourse and Practice in a London Jazz Quartet

Article excerpt

I think the key is that we really try to think about what we're doing. I think a lot of bands don't. We put so much thought into what we're playing--and really deliberately in terms of concept or what we're trying to express. Each tune has an identity. It's all very considered. It's not chance, so much. Chance comes on the bandstand.

Tom Farmer (Empirical 2010)

At the start of "Bowden Out," the concluding track on their 2009 album Out 'n' In, London jazz quartet Empirical generates a sound world that is both new and familiar. Acoustic bass, alto saxophone, and bass clarinet weave an accompanimental fabric of open, strummed chords and gentle breathy dyads. Over this consistently undulating foundation, a vibraphone skips a weightless melody. Drums enter, adding the wash and rumble of mallets on cymbals and tom-toms. Together, the ensemble floats in suspended animation. The recording offers admirable space and clarity, allowing the listener to focus on the quiet click of woodwind keys, the fleshy attack of bass strings, the slow rotation of vibraphone motors. This moment of quiet reflection comes at the end of an album dedicated to a modern reimagining of the music of reedist and composer Eric Dolphy. "Bowden Out" presents a reflective abstraction of his ensemble's music, revealing the extent to which Empirical has assimilated and personalized the compositional and interactive processes at the heart of Dolphy's recording, Out To Lunch.

Empirical's process--careful study of a series of recordings as the foundation of the quartet's collective work as improvisers--is certainly nothing new. This imitative approach has been broadly distributed across the jazz landscape for the last century as countless young musicians have used old recordings as the foundation of new work. Empirical's particular result, however, is unique to them, and it is uniquely informed by their relationship to the jazz tradition--both as the tradition's story has been told and as the tradition has been lived by musicians. Through their collective imagination of the processes undertaken by the Dolphy quintet in Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, recording studio in February 1964, the members of Empirical have pieced together their own understanding of the practices and relationships animating the American post-bop community of the mid-1960s. Their internalization of the dominant jazz discourse has led the members of Empirical to paint themselves--a racially diverse ensemble of young British improvisers--as outsiders, separated both in time and in locality from the most privileged sites at which the jazz tradition has coalesced. Their sincere, focused engagement with their recorded mentors, however, has enabled the group to overcome the limitations that they have associated with the distance they perceive between themselves and the tradition's discursive core.

On Out 'n' In, Empirical explores Dolphy's music quite directly, focusing on Out To Lunch in particular. While Out 'n' In includes two Dolphy compositions ("Hat and Beard" and "Gazzelloni"), the majority of the album is dedicated to an abstracting and reimagining of Dolphy's processes and materials. As bassist Tom Farmer describes Empirical's approach, "Each [track] deals with at least one specific idea from Dolphy and Dolphy's associates" (Empirical 2010). Rather than writing new compositions based loosely on Dolphy's musical style yet utilizing traditional bebop forms, Empirical constructs spaces that fuse definite material and performative process within a single set of instructions. The pieces included on Out 'n' In are not only melodies and harmonic progressions composed by one of the group members; the works themselves also encompass collectively negotiated guidelines for each performance's interaction and expressive shape. These shared understandings are broad and negotiable, but they form an important foundation for the quarter's engagement with each composition. …

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