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The Dissolute Society - Soldiering On Rating: 3-5 out of 5 Brave, original, adventurous and uncompromising music that the committed listener can draw a great deal from. The best music isn’t always ‘easy’.

The Dissolute Society

“Soldiering On”

(Babel Records BDV16145)

The Dissolute Society is the name given to the eight piece vocal and instrumental ensemble led by the British trombonist, composer and educator Raphael Clarkson.

Clarkson is best known as a member of the anarchic punk jazz quintet WorldService Project, led by keyboard player and composer Dave Morecroft, and has been with the band since its inception, appearing on all of its recordings.

Away from WSP Clarkson leads a busy and productive musical life across a variety of genres. His other projects include The Vanderbilts, a contemporary cross discipline project with keyboard player Elliot Galvin and dancer Kasia Witek. He’s also a member of the freely improvising Spreckles Brass Ensemble and of The Old Bone Band who specialise in the trad and swing jazz of the 1930s and 40s.

It’s an eclectic mix that extends into Clarkson’s educational work which has seen him acting as a workshop leader for various London based projects involving children with special educational and social needs.

He has also worked with various theatres and as a sideman / session musician across a variety of musical genres ranging from jazz and hip hop to classical and opera.

The breadth of Clarkson’s musical background is brought into focus on “Soldiering On”, a highly personal recording that deals with the subjects of love, loss and family and personal history. The subject matter is largely autobiographical with Clarkson’s liner notes declaring “this album is in many ways the story of my life thus far, and while it is highly personal my hope is that it resonates with you in some way”.

The album was recorded in March 2016 but the music had already been premièred at a packed out Vortex as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival, a performance that I was fortunate enough to witness and which was reviewed as part of my Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/efg-london-jazz-festival-2015-second-sunday-22-11-2015/
The music has subsequently been performed at Cambridge Jazz Festival and at scaled down Dissolute Society Trio gigs in Bristol, London and Brighton.

Many of the musicians who appeared at The Vortex also play on the album, including Clarkson’s father Gustav on viola. The core line up on the recording features;

Raph Clarkson – trombone, vocals
Fini Bearman – vocals
Laura Jurd – trumpet
Naomi Burrell – violin
Zosia Jagodzinska – cello
Gustav Clarkson – viola
Phil Merriman – keyboards / synth bass
Simon Roth – drums

The album also includes guest performances from Huw Warren on piano and accordion, Mia Marlen Berg and Joshua Idehen on vocals and Mike Soper on trumpet. Warren, who performed with the band at The Vortex, appears on the majority of the tracks and is virtually a fully fledged member of the ensemble. 

The music and words on “Soldiering On”  are largely written by Clarkson but the album also includes compositions by two of the trombonist’s mentors,  the pianist John Taylor and the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. It had originally been the intention for Taylor to perform on the album but his untimely death in July 2015 prevented this from becoming a reality. The album is dedicated to Taylor’s memory and also to the memory of Clarkson’s mother Micaela Comberti (1952 – 2003), an accomplished violinist and baroque and early music specialist.


The album consists of fifteen movements and commences with “Opening ( A Journey)” which explores the effects of the second world war and the emigration of Clarkson’s German Jewish grandmother who lived in Palestine for many years. Bearman gives voice to Clarkson’s words, written from the point of view of a child trying to understand his grandmother’s experiences. Bearman’s voice is flexible, her vocals sometimes semi-spoken, in this melange of jazz and poetry. The music utilises the contrasting sounds of brass and strings to create a rich tapestry of colours and textures.

The theme continues into “Grandma” which emerges from a free jazz eruption featuring Bearman’s extended vocal techniques, the rustle of Roth’s drums and percussion and the rasp of the leader’s trombone. Bearman’s extraordinary rendition of the lyrics is unsettling, there’s an other worldly sense of dislocation, as if Clarkson’s grandmother is trying to speak to the young Raph through a crowd of radio static, an impression that the fidgety, sometimes eerie instrumental accompaniment only encourages. It’s possible that this approach has been adopted as a comment on the subject of dementia.

The opening trio of thematically linked movements flow into one another and the third, “Reborn/4am/The Teddy Bear” addresses the subject of bereavement from the point of view of a six year old boy grieving for his dying mother. It’s almost unbearably personal with Clarkson’s adding his own voice to that of Bearman with a semi-spoken narrative that embraces both the deeply spiritual and the everyday mundane - “cabbie’s prattle”, “Barnet General”.  The bleakness of the subject matter is reflected in a superb musical arrangement encompassing ghostly, grainy strings, scratchy percussion and almost subliminal trombone and synth drones.

The album enters more conventional territory with the John Taylor composed instrumental “In February” which introduces Warren to the fold for the first time, his flowing, crystalline piano playing evoking memories of Taylor on a delightful piece embracing elements of jazz, folk and chamber music. Warren is joined in a series of uplifting exchanges by violinist Naomi Burrell, a musician whose playing encompasses both jazz and the baroque.

“For J.T.” is Clarkson’s homage to Taylor, a tribute in both words and music featuring Warren’s limpid piano and Clarkson’s recitation of his own words praising both Taylor the musician and Taylor the man “a humble,giving, magic musician”. Clarkson then picks up his trombone and joins Warren in an instrumental coda, the rounded, melancholy tones of the trombone imparting a hymn like gravitas to the music. Taylor remains an inspirational figure to several members of the Dissolute Society, particularly Merriman and Roth who, together with Clarkson, were tutored by Taylor at York University.

Almost as influential, and inextricably linked with Taylor, is the late, great Kenny Wheeler (1930 – 2014). Wheeler’s composition “Kind Folk” is included here in an arrangement featuring lyrics written by Clarkson and delivered by Bearman alongside a rousing trombone solo from the leader and a soaring trumpet solo from Jurd. There’s also a sparkling piano solo from Warren in the John Taylor role. Meanwhile the sound of the strings adds a folk element to the music that is commensurate with the title of a tune that Clarkson has described as his all time favourite.

Clarkson has cited the influence of European classical composers on his music, these including Schoenberg, Bartók and Stravinsky. An arrangement of a traditional Hungarian Folksong also reflects Clarkson’s European heritage and is a tune that was also adapted by Bartók for one of his piano pieces. Clarkson’s arrangement is unexpectedly dark and features his own trombone alongside Jagodzinska’s cello, allied to the other strings, plus Warren’s piano. There’s also a highly atmospheric, freely improvised outro featuring dark , grainy textures.

The art of improvisation is also central to “And It Ends When It Needs To”, the two part tribute to Keith and Julie Tippetts who both tutored Clarkson at Dartington College in Devon. The first part features Warren’s piano and Clarkson’s recitation of his own evocative lyrics which speak of  “a couple in spirit” and of “mutton chops and ringlet hair”, neatly summing up Keith and Julie, while also singing the praises of the Devon landscape.
Part 2 is more obviously improvised by the trio of Clarkson, Jurd and Bearman with the singer deploying some of Julie’s adventurous vocal techniques. Bearman also sings Clarkson’s words from Part One, casting them in a very different light.
There’s a certain poignancy in hearing this again in the light of Keith’s current illness following a recent heart attack.

“Interlude 1” continues the improvised theme with an adventurous passage of free improvisation featuring Warren at the piano, including the use of prepared piano sounds and other ‘under the lid’ techniques.  He’s joined by Norwegian guest vocalist Mia Marlen Berg whose voice swoops, soars and unsettles, closer in spirit to Julie Tippetts than even Bearman had been.

This segues into an ensemble arrangement of Taylor’s title track with Warren’s piano again prominent in the arrangement. The lyrics, delivered by Bearman, return to the theme of war. Warren features as a soloist but there also some gloriously powerful ensemble passages. Clarkson has cited the influence of experimental jazz big bands such as Charles Mingus and Loose Tubes on his writing.

“Interlude 2” is another duo improvisation between Warren and Marlen Berg with the pianist again deploying extended techniques while the singer sometimes treats the sound of her voice electronically. It’s atmospheric, unsettling and vaguely Nordic in feel.

Briefer than the first Interlude the piece segues into “I’m Sorry”, one of the stand out pieces from that Vortex set in 2015. There the vocals were performed by Bearman but here it’s Marlen Berg with a similarly theatrical rendition of a piece that is inspired by that  very British characteristic of the unnecessary apology for things that are patently not your fault. Amusing, but almost painfully insightful it’s one of the most arresting pieces on the album and features adventurous vocal techniques allied to some rip roaring ensemble playing. It’s not always comfortable listening but it’s undeniably attention grabbing and compelling.

Jurd’s trumpet pyrotechnics then lead the way into “Find The Way Through” which features almost funky grooves, and the rap vocals of guest artist Joshua Idehen, who I presume was the ‘mystery rapper’ at the Vortex show Meanwhile Bearman delivers the main lyric with its theme of adopting a positive approach in the face of personal adversity. It’s by far the most uplifting lyric on the album and can be read as Clarkson finally coming to terms with his personal inner demons. His often disturbing personal story seems to have found a happy ending at last.

That sense of reconciliation continues into the appropriately titled “Closing” (sub title “Tomorrow”) which features Merriman’s almost hymnal keyboard drone and the extraordinary wordless vocals of Marlen Berg. Later Roth sets up a cerebrally funky groove which is allied to jagged strings, punchy brass and soaring wordless vocals. Guest trumpeter Mike Soper combines with Jurd on a series of thrilling exchanges as the piece builds to a rousing, uplifting and cathartic climax.

As an album “Soldiering On” represents a remarkable piece of work. It’s obviously highly personal and deeply cathartic and its defiantly uncompromising stance won’t endear it to all listeners. It’s a recording that makes no concessions to its potential audience yet it’s one that all its participants thoroughly buy into and give it their full commitment.

The album brings together a diversity of musical styles incorporating jazz, folk and classical elements and ranges from the densely written to the freely improvised. All elements of Clarkson’s emotional and musical DNA are here with the former also finding expression through his very personal lyrics, which in many cases can rightly be considered as poetry.

“It’s certainly one of the most difficult things I’ve listened to all year” remarked Thomas Rees when reviewing the album for Jazzwise Magazine. However he wasn’t entirely dismissive, praising several individual pieces while adding “it’s an album that requires several listens to get your head around”.

Perhaps because I’d seen the music played live I found that I enjoyed the album rather more and found myself immersing myself in the music in much the same way as I might a good, but challenging novel. “Soldiering On” features a cast of characters ranging from Clarkson family members to more public figures such as Taylor, Wheeler and the Tippetts and it’s possible to listen to the recording in a narrative way, the literary comparisons encouraged by Clarkson’s very personal words.

Some may dismiss “Soldiering On” as self indulgent, but for me it represents brave, original, adventurous and uncompromising music that the committed listener can draw a great deal from. The best music isn’t always ‘easy’.

On that basis I’m not going to recommend it to everyone but there are many listeners who should find something rewarding in this highly individual mix of music, poetry and autobiography.

 

Soldiering On

The Dissolute Society

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

3-5 out of 5

Soldiering On

Brave, original, adventurous and uncompromising music that the committed listener can draw a great deal from. The best music isn’t always ‘easy’.

The Dissolute Society

“Soldiering On”

(Babel Records BDV16145)

The Dissolute Society is the name given to the eight piece vocal and instrumental ensemble led by the British trombonist, composer and educator Raphael Clarkson.

Clarkson is best known as a member of the anarchic punk jazz quintet WorldService Project, led by keyboard player and composer Dave Morecroft, and has been with the band since its inception, appearing on all of its recordings.

Away from WSP Clarkson leads a busy and productive musical life across a variety of genres. His other projects include The Vanderbilts, a contemporary cross discipline project with keyboard player Elliot Galvin and dancer Kasia Witek. He’s also a member of the freely improvising Spreckles Brass Ensemble and of The Old Bone Band who specialise in the trad and swing jazz of the 1930s and 40s.

It’s an eclectic mix that extends into Clarkson’s educational work which has seen him acting as a workshop leader for various London based projects involving children with special educational and social needs.

He has also worked with various theatres and as a sideman / session musician across a variety of musical genres ranging from jazz and hip hop to classical and opera.

The breadth of Clarkson’s musical background is brought into focus on “Soldiering On”, a highly personal recording that deals with the subjects of love, loss and family and personal history. The subject matter is largely autobiographical with Clarkson’s liner notes declaring “this album is in many ways the story of my life thus far, and while it is highly personal my hope is that it resonates with you in some way”.

The album was recorded in March 2016 but the music had already been premièred at a packed out Vortex as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival, a performance that I was fortunate enough to witness and which was reviewed as part of my Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/efg-london-jazz-festival-2015-second-sunday-22-11-2015/
The music has subsequently been performed at Cambridge Jazz Festival and at scaled down Dissolute Society Trio gigs in Bristol, London and Brighton.

Many of the musicians who appeared at The Vortex also play on the album, including Clarkson’s father Gustav on viola. The core line up on the recording features;

Raph Clarkson – trombone, vocals
Fini Bearman – vocals
Laura Jurd – trumpet
Naomi Burrell – violin
Zosia Jagodzinska – cello
Gustav Clarkson – viola
Phil Merriman – keyboards / synth bass
Simon Roth – drums

The album also includes guest performances from Huw Warren on piano and accordion, Mia Marlen Berg and Joshua Idehen on vocals and Mike Soper on trumpet. Warren, who performed with the band at The Vortex, appears on the majority of the tracks and is virtually a fully fledged member of the ensemble. 

The music and words on “Soldiering On”  are largely written by Clarkson but the album also includes compositions by two of the trombonist’s mentors,  the pianist John Taylor and the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. It had originally been the intention for Taylor to perform on the album but his untimely death in July 2015 prevented this from becoming a reality. The album is dedicated to Taylor’s memory and also to the memory of Clarkson’s mother Micaela Comberti (1952 – 2003), an accomplished violinist and baroque and early music specialist.


The album consists of fifteen movements and commences with “Opening ( A Journey)” which explores the effects of the second world war and the emigration of Clarkson’s German Jewish grandmother who lived in Palestine for many years. Bearman gives voice to Clarkson’s words, written from the point of view of a child trying to understand his grandmother’s experiences. Bearman’s voice is flexible, her vocals sometimes semi-spoken, in this melange of jazz and poetry. The music utilises the contrasting sounds of brass and strings to create a rich tapestry of colours and textures.

The theme continues into “Grandma” which emerges from a free jazz eruption featuring Bearman’s extended vocal techniques, the rustle of Roth’s drums and percussion and the rasp of the leader’s trombone. Bearman’s extraordinary rendition of the lyrics is unsettling, there’s an other worldly sense of dislocation, as if Clarkson’s grandmother is trying to speak to the young Raph through a crowd of radio static, an impression that the fidgety, sometimes eerie instrumental accompaniment only encourages. It’s possible that this approach has been adopted as a comment on the subject of dementia.

The opening trio of thematically linked movements flow into one another and the third, “Reborn/4am/The Teddy Bear” addresses the subject of bereavement from the point of view of a six year old boy grieving for his dying mother. It’s almost unbearably personal with Clarkson’s adding his own voice to that of Bearman with a semi-spoken narrative that embraces both the deeply spiritual and the everyday mundane - “cabbie’s prattle”, “Barnet General”.  The bleakness of the subject matter is reflected in a superb musical arrangement encompassing ghostly, grainy strings, scratchy percussion and almost subliminal trombone and synth drones.

The album enters more conventional territory with the John Taylor composed instrumental “In February” which introduces Warren to the fold for the first time, his flowing, crystalline piano playing evoking memories of Taylor on a delightful piece embracing elements of jazz, folk and chamber music. Warren is joined in a series of uplifting exchanges by violinist Naomi Burrell, a musician whose playing encompasses both jazz and the baroque.

“For J.T.” is Clarkson’s homage to Taylor, a tribute in both words and music featuring Warren’s limpid piano and Clarkson’s recitation of his own words praising both Taylor the musician and Taylor the man “a humble,giving, magic musician”. Clarkson then picks up his trombone and joins Warren in an instrumental coda, the rounded, melancholy tones of the trombone imparting a hymn like gravitas to the music. Taylor remains an inspirational figure to several members of the Dissolute Society, particularly Merriman and Roth who, together with Clarkson, were tutored by Taylor at York University.

Almost as influential, and inextricably linked with Taylor, is the late, great Kenny Wheeler (1930 – 2014). Wheeler’s composition “Kind Folk” is included here in an arrangement featuring lyrics written by Clarkson and delivered by Bearman alongside a rousing trombone solo from the leader and a soaring trumpet solo from Jurd. There’s also a sparkling piano solo from Warren in the John Taylor role. Meanwhile the sound of the strings adds a folk element to the music that is commensurate with the title of a tune that Clarkson has described as his all time favourite.

Clarkson has cited the influence of European classical composers on his music, these including Schoenberg, Bartók and Stravinsky. An arrangement of a traditional Hungarian Folksong also reflects Clarkson’s European heritage and is a tune that was also adapted by Bartók for one of his piano pieces. Clarkson’s arrangement is unexpectedly dark and features his own trombone alongside Jagodzinska’s cello, allied to the other strings, plus Warren’s piano. There’s also a highly atmospheric, freely improvised outro featuring dark , grainy textures.

The art of improvisation is also central to “And It Ends When It Needs To”, the two part tribute to Keith and Julie Tippetts who both tutored Clarkson at Dartington College in Devon. The first part features Warren’s piano and Clarkson’s recitation of his own evocative lyrics which speak of  “a couple in spirit” and of “mutton chops and ringlet hair”, neatly summing up Keith and Julie, while also singing the praises of the Devon landscape.
Part 2 is more obviously improvised by the trio of Clarkson, Jurd and Bearman with the singer deploying some of Julie’s adventurous vocal techniques. Bearman also sings Clarkson’s words from Part One, casting them in a very different light.
There’s a certain poignancy in hearing this again in the light of Keith’s current illness following a recent heart attack.

“Interlude 1” continues the improvised theme with an adventurous passage of free improvisation featuring Warren at the piano, including the use of prepared piano sounds and other ‘under the lid’ techniques.  He’s joined by Norwegian guest vocalist Mia Marlen Berg whose voice swoops, soars and unsettles, closer in spirit to Julie Tippetts than even Bearman had been.

This segues into an ensemble arrangement of Taylor’s title track with Warren’s piano again prominent in the arrangement. The lyrics, delivered by Bearman, return to the theme of war. Warren features as a soloist but there also some gloriously powerful ensemble passages. Clarkson has cited the influence of experimental jazz big bands such as Charles Mingus and Loose Tubes on his writing.

“Interlude 2” is another duo improvisation between Warren and Marlen Berg with the pianist again deploying extended techniques while the singer sometimes treats the sound of her voice electronically. It’s atmospheric, unsettling and vaguely Nordic in feel.

Briefer than the first Interlude the piece segues into “I’m Sorry”, one of the stand out pieces from that Vortex set in 2015. There the vocals were performed by Bearman but here it’s Marlen Berg with a similarly theatrical rendition of a piece that is inspired by that  very British characteristic of the unnecessary apology for things that are patently not your fault. Amusing, but almost painfully insightful it’s one of the most arresting pieces on the album and features adventurous vocal techniques allied to some rip roaring ensemble playing. It’s not always comfortable listening but it’s undeniably attention grabbing and compelling.

Jurd’s trumpet pyrotechnics then lead the way into “Find The Way Through” which features almost funky grooves, and the rap vocals of guest artist Joshua Idehen, who I presume was the ‘mystery rapper’ at the Vortex show Meanwhile Bearman delivers the main lyric with its theme of adopting a positive approach in the face of personal adversity. It’s by far the most uplifting lyric on the album and can be read as Clarkson finally coming to terms with his personal inner demons. His often disturbing personal story seems to have found a happy ending at last.

That sense of reconciliation continues into the appropriately titled “Closing” (sub title “Tomorrow”) which features Merriman’s almost hymnal keyboard drone and the extraordinary wordless vocals of Marlen Berg. Later Roth sets up a cerebrally funky groove which is allied to jagged strings, punchy brass and soaring wordless vocals. Guest trumpeter Mike Soper combines with Jurd on a series of thrilling exchanges as the piece builds to a rousing, uplifting and cathartic climax.

As an album “Soldiering On” represents a remarkable piece of work. It’s obviously highly personal and deeply cathartic and its defiantly uncompromising stance won’t endear it to all listeners. It’s a recording that makes no concessions to its potential audience yet it’s one that all its participants thoroughly buy into and give it their full commitment.

The album brings together a diversity of musical styles incorporating jazz, folk and classical elements and ranges from the densely written to the freely improvised. All elements of Clarkson’s emotional and musical DNA are here with the former also finding expression through his very personal lyrics, which in many cases can rightly be considered as poetry.

“It’s certainly one of the most difficult things I’ve listened to all year” remarked Thomas Rees when reviewing the album for Jazzwise Magazine. However he wasn’t entirely dismissive, praising several individual pieces while adding “it’s an album that requires several listens to get your head around”.

Perhaps because I’d seen the music played live I found that I enjoyed the album rather more and found myself immersing myself in the music in much the same way as I might a good, but challenging novel. “Soldiering On” features a cast of characters ranging from Clarkson family members to more public figures such as Taylor, Wheeler and the Tippetts and it’s possible to listen to the recording in a narrative way, the literary comparisons encouraged by Clarkson’s very personal words.

Some may dismiss “Soldiering On” as self indulgent, but for me it represents brave, original, adventurous and uncompromising music that the committed listener can draw a great deal from. The best music isn’t always ‘easy’.

On that basis I’m not going to recommend it to everyone but there are many listeners who should find something rewarding in this highly individual mix of music, poetry and autobiography.

 


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