That cover image of four interlocking hands is no accident, as Connection is very much about the highly advanced rapport between four individuals, a connection refined over the course of four album projects before the one under consideration here. On earlier Empirical releases, Nathaniel Facey (alto sax), Shaney Forbes (drums), Lewis Wright (vibraphone), and Tom Farmer (double bass) included contributions from guests, among them the all-women string ensemble Benyounes Quartet, who appeared on the 2013 double album Tabula Rasa, Empirical's fourth. In marked contrast, Connection sees the quartet presenting the band's sound in its purest form in a set of all-original material.
The group's post-bop sound is rooted in the experimental tradition of the ‘60s, but Empirical is no throwback. It draws for inspiration from that period as much in terms of spirit and sensibility as style, and moments arise on the album that suggest a connection to early Ornette but also Dave Holland and M-Base. More precisely, the presence of Wright's vibraphone within the quartet calls to mind a Holland recording such as 1995's Dream of the Elders on which vibraphonist Steve Nelson plays; the jagged, funk-inflected rhythms of Connection's “Initiate the Initiations,” on the other hand, resembles a prototypical early M-Base piece by Steve Coleman.
What distinguishes Empirical's playing is that all four musicians are always in motion, each attentive to what's happening in the moment and responding to it. Forbes and Farmer impress as a highly kinetic and unerring rhythm section that adapts to abrupt compositional shifts with seeming ease; Facey, the band's primary soloist, complements that by playing with a confident and incisive attack that Wright warms with his colourful shimmer (hear, for example, the way his sparkle illuminates the blues workout “Stay the Course”).
Farmer's “Initiate the Initiations” opens the album arrestingly with a funky, percussion-heavy intro that gradually morphs into an irrepressibly swinging jazz-funk workout that sees Facey and Forbes replicating the bite of Coleman and Marvin “Smitty” Smith on albums such as Rhythm People and Black Science. Wright's “Lethe,” by comparison, spotlights the group's tranquil side with seven minutes of wistful blues balladry that also turns into a strong vehicle for Facey's artful expression, while “The Two-Edged Sword” rides its bop rails at a breakneck speed.
Even a single run-through of the album reveals that Connection isn't a collection of lazy head-solos-head jams but rather a set of challenging pieces that only a well-rehearsed outfit could execute; “The Maze,” an aptly titled case in point, builds from a Clapping Music-styled intro into a complex, multi-directional setting that veers from episodes of Afro-jazz to freewheeling tumult. On this fine eleven-track outing (one a digital bonus), Empirical repeatedly shows itself to be the kind of outfit capable of handling any jazz-related variant, be it funk, Latin, blues, or bop.