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Jazz Ensemble Empirical Recalls Eric Dolphy

<em>Out 'n' In</em> is Empirical's second album. The band's self-titled debut was released in 2007.
Out 'n' In is Empirical's second album. The band's self-titled debut was released in 2007.

The English band Empirical's new album, Out 'n' In, is dedicated to the late jazz artist Eric Dolphy, a patron saint of the 1960s avant-garde. Like his colleagues Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, Dolphy could blur the lines between traditional and exploratory jazz. In hipster parlance, he played both "inside" and "outside."

On its new CD, Empirical captures the spirit of Dolphy's 1964 masterwork album Out to Lunch! That album has the same quirky rhythm lineup this quartet has: bass and drums, plus vibraphone instead of piano.

Empirical performs an extreme version of jazz's everyday miracle: It plays mostly spontaneous, constantly mutating parts that fit together like clockwork. Close listening is the key. The middle part of the song "Syndicalism," by bassist Tom Farmer, lacks the typical markers of swing rhythm — no walking bass or pulsing ride cymbals. But all the players contribute to the catlike prowling, including guest Julian Siegel on tenor sax.

The band takes what it learned from Eric Dolphy and makes it their own. If jazz often seems preoccupied with its own past, it does have a way of reinventing itself out of its root materials. Nowadays, bands get praised for evoking the '60s like it's the 1980s all over again. But even revivalism ain't what it used to be. The '80s version was partly an attempt to write problematic music out of jazz history. New revivalists like Empirical are writing the outside stuff back in.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.