Nathaniel Facey

The alto saxophonist tells us how the Brit-jazz quartet Empirical have been inspired by the 1960s jazz legend Eric Dolphy

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Why is your new album Out ‘n’ In influenced by Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch?
We’d all been listening to Out To Lunch. It’s a record that we’d all discovered at different points and we decided that we’d like to play that material for gigs. There’s something about the way that those musicians played on that particular record, the way that they communicate as a band. Everyone’s individual voice is heard individually but always communicating in a collective effort, which is what we’re trying to do. Then we got the opportunity to play at the London Jazz Festival at the Barbican. That was the catalyst for everything that’s come since.


The title Out ‘n’ In has echoes of Dolphy’s album titles?
We wanted to reference that word ‘Out’ in particular because it’s a standout word when you talk about Dolphy. There’s the album titles – ‘Out To Lunch’, ‘Outward Bound’, ‘Out There’ – and then there’s some really good quotations. There’s one in particular – I’ve searched but I cannot find who wrote it – it says that Dolphy’s music was ‘Too out to be in but too in to be out’. I really like it. You could think about that for days!


Are there written transcriptions that still exist? How did you recreate Dolphy’s sound?
We studied the records ourselves. I always think that’s the best way of doing it. If it’s possible to get hold of something he wrote or jotted down that’s great and I do have a small passage of some scales that he wrote out and gave to John Coltrane in a book that I’ve got.


Dolphy liked using the sounds of nature. Is that something you’ve looked into?
Yes, there’s a couple of points where we’ve tried to highlight a little bit without trying to copy or emulate how he did it. At points on ‘Dolphius Morphyus’ – in the middle section where there is a kind of lull and the drums are the lead voice and the bass and the vibraphone play this cycle that supports everything – in that section, myself and Julian Siegel, we use the alto sax and bass clarinet to make different kinds of animal imitation sounds like bird noises.


The band has had several line-up changes. How would you say playing now compares to before?
The changes haven’t been as big a jolt as you may expect – I couldn’t imagine the band any other way than how it is now. Our tunes will always sound different every night. An album example is ‘Syndicalism’ (click on clip, above), a composition by [bassist] Tom Farmer. That tune is about the idea that we as individuals can create something greater by coming together, than we can by ourselves. We’re all helping to lift one another’s statements into a higher place. After the second theme, from that point on all of the improvisation is open and nothing is predetermined, so we’re spontaneously composing. We go off somewhere and try and find places that we agree on. There’s never any predetermined way for us to get back. Sometimes it doesn’t even happen. We have played it before and we didn’t get back. It just felt natural to keep going and find a different conclusion than we would of all expected


What were you listening to that got you into jazz in the first place?
I grew up listening to Michael Jackson, and in my teens I was into funk, Jamiroquai and older things like James Brown and P-Funk. I had a John Coltrane record, Kula Se Mama, the first record that really hit me. Then it was a backtracking process. I found Coltrane’s Love Supreme and Crescent. And then it was: Who did Coltrane play with? Miles Davis; Who played with Miles Davis? Everybody. And now my bedroom is just jazz records.

Interview by Neil McKim

Audio clip: Empirical: Syndicalism