Our jazz critic finds a Hanoi audience slowly warming to some rare sounds of uncompromising and brilliant jazz.
This November The British Council took a welcome turn away from the UK’s well trodden cultural mainstream by bringing over contemporary jazz trio Empirical to be part of the EU Music festival in Vietnam.
Coming without their current vibraphone player Lewis Wright, the trio of alto sax; Nathaniel Facey, bass; Tom Farmer, and drums; Shane Forbes, drew from repertoire to suit this harmonically sparse format and also included some 1960s avant garde jazz classics that I guess have been seldom heard in Hanoi.
With three very successful CDs already under their belt and wide recognition through a range of high profile music prizes, Empirical walked onto the stage in Hanoi on thursday with two big challenges: how to connect their contemporary jazz repertoire with an unknown audience and how to make the pared down sax/bass/drums format sustain interest over a 90 minute set. They met this challenge with no condescension to the audience and no compromise in their song choice. But it was a close run thing with the audience only suddenly realizing what magnificent music they were witnessing on the last song Gazzelloni where Facey found great intensity with soaring lines in his solo, Farmer finally got the best of his borrowed bass and Forbes was faultlessly attentive like he’d been all evening with his light touch and understated rhythm-making.
Legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins made several piano-less sax trio albums most notably Way Out West (1957) and Freedom Suite (1958) and Empirical drew from both. Whether it was a good idea to start their set with the 20 minute Freedom Suite with its unpredictable turns and shifts of mood is a moot point but during it we saw how this trio interact, finding a dynamic balance between reed, string and drum. Even as a dyed in the wool jazz fanatic, I admit that listening without a harmony instrument to show me the musical landscape is a challenge because my ears have to work harder to fill in the gaps. What you get as compensation though is great sonority and separation of tone allowing you to engage more deeply with the interaction of the three elements.
With Facey’s massive tone on alto – he didn’t really need to be miked up – you hear a jazz pedigree line going all the way back to Charlie Parker though Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and beyond. With Farmer’s sheer musicality, high work-rate and percussive use of the bass you hear a bubbling mountain stream connecting all the harmonic dots. Forbes on drums, who reminded me of a young Roy Haynes, is the delicate rhythmic scratch of the calligrapher’s nib on paper sometimes stating the beat, sometimes merely alluding to it. It’s musical and emotional detail you get when you strip away the harmony instrument and Empirical stand up to close inspection on both counts.
When Eric Dolphy recorded his masterpiece album Out To Lunch (1964) on Blue Note Records he sealed the place of the avant garde in jazz history – it is essential listening for anyone interested in the form. To hear the classics Hat and Beard and Gazzelloni from it, performed in Hanoi was a rare treat indeed and one that the audience gradually warmed too. Without the vibes or trumpet of the originals, I could see the architecture of the pieces more clearly and how Facey thrives in this environment as he probed each rhythmic and harmonic precipice. When he then launched into Duke Ellington’s Solitude from a completely different jazz era, we heard his nostalgic side and the depth of the jazz wellspring Empirical draw on to find their voice.
It was a tough call to bring this kind to jazz to a Youth Theatre / British Council audience and hope they engage with it. But one thing I’ve found in Vietnam is that you must never underestimate any audience or give them watered down common cultural denominators. When the audience finally clapped one of Facey’s solos, I saw a flash of vindication in his eyes and realized that yes, that’s the key – take risks and don’t compromise in art exchange. So British Council, well done – a little less Love, Actually and a lot more Gazzelloni – it’s good for artists and audiences.
Hat And Beard
Scoffie (The Moody One)
I’m an Old Cowhand (encore)
You can buy Empirical’s albums on-line:
Words and photographs by Paul Zetter
Photographer’s note: The pictures in this review were taken at the afternoon rehearsal. When Empirical stepped onto the stage in the evening I would have bet good money that they were the best dressed young men in Vietnam at that moment and that’s saying something!
|Paul Zetter is an accomplished jazz musician, knowledgable fan and enthusiastic writer and reviewer. He also writes his own blog dedicated to reviews of jazz piano trios. Read more of his writing and listen to him perform some of his own original music on the piano.|