London Jazz Festival: Empirical, Shepp/Kühn

Fred Grand reviews Empirical with Robert Mitchell and the Archie Shepp/Joachim Kühn duo at Queen Elizabeth Hall, 17 November 2011

Photography © John Watson/

Archie SheppArchie Shepp (right) is no stranger to the piano duet - Dollar Brand, Horace Parlan and Mal Waldron have all recorded intimate sessions with this one time "New Thing" firebrand. Now a veteran who has mellowed to explore blues and bop in his own idiosyncratic way, his latest piano mate happens to be one of my all time favourites - Joachim Kühn. Their recent disc Wo! Man (Archieball, 2011) was truly invigorating, and both an artistic and critical success. This being a festival though, some intelligent programming by Serious offered the packed Queen Elizabeth Hall a home grown hors d'oeuvre before the main course was served.

It's been a couple of years since I've seen Empirical, now a stripped-down quartet, and for tonight's performance they teamed up with one of the UK's most exciting pianists, Robert Mitchell. Playing a set of originals, all written by bassist Tom Farmer, there's lots to admire in their approach. Form and structure always take primacy over conventional solo strings, but there's a maturity and unpredictability in the writing and highly developed group dynamics to carry it off. Mitchell was the only man on stage not suited and booted, and he only really broke free of the ensemble with a well crafted solo on An Ambiguous State Of Mind, but this was enough to elicit the biggest spontaneous ovation of the set.

Joachin KühnShepp and Kühn opened their set with the same attention-grabbing piece as the disc, the nagging insistent throb of the pianist's Transmitting. More than hinting at the 60s radical within, Shepp laid out his stall early and pretty much played variations on the same riff for the rest of the evening. His sound is huge, monolithic even, and there's now something antique about its patina, deliberately evoking Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. For my own part I soon found myself longing for him to take his horn out of his mouth to allow Kühn (right) to take more than a single chorus, but the German took his chances well, finding small gaps to unleash his brilliant quicksilver runs. Ornette's Lonely Woman and W.C. Handy's Harlem Nocturne were the pick of the ballads, whilst the Latin tinged Nina and the bluesy Driving Miss Daisy from the album were both amongst the show's clear high spots.

They were more expansive and certainly freer than the recording, but where they strayed off piste to tackle standards the results were less successful. Given the chance, Kühn could have taken any of these pieces to dimensions untouched. Yet there was a real warmth and affection in the room, and Shepp is sadly one of a dying breed. Seated for most of the performance but outwardly in rude health, he was pushed hard by Kühn who brought out the best Shepp could offer. All in all it was a privilege to be close to such a vital slice of history, but let's hope it's not too long before Kühn is back in the UK and playing his scintillating music on his own terms.

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