The Dissolute Society – Soldiering On
Babel Label BDV16145. CD review by Adrian Pallant)
Hats off (bowler style, if you like) to trombonist Raph Clarkson and his eight-piece ensemble of musical mavericks in the creation of Soldiering On – a kaleidoscopic and often avant garde debut release from The Dissolute Society, with guests including Huw Warren (piano, accordion) and Mia Marlen Berg (vocals, effects).
Dedicated both to the late John Taylor (the album features two of his compositions alongside one of Kenny Wheeler’s) and Micaela Comberti (Raph’s late mother – a violinist and leading figure in the British Early Music revival), the album explores personal themes of family, migration, death and tragedy. But it is music, aligned to the support and love provided by fellow musicians, which the leader communicates as the overarching balm, providing strength and bringing meaning to it all. The Society membership also comprises Fini Bearman (vocals), Laura Jurd (trumpet), Naomi Burrell (violin), Zosia Jagodzinska (cello), Gustav Clarkson (viola), Phil Merriman (keys, synth bass) and Simon Roth (drums).
With such an experimental and free nature, these fifteen tracks (over 69 minutes) may initially come as a jolt to the senses, especially the cacophonous, shrieking and seemingly unruly episodes which are unleashed from the off. But stay with it, and the barriers come down; the dissonance is infiltrated by strangely warming beauty, melodic equilibrium, technical dexterity … and the intrigue of what might lie ahead. Clarkson’s artistic path includes various improvisatory projects, as well as jazz-punk outfit WorldService project – so his creativity knows no bounds (just listen to Mia Marlen Berg’s extreme, guttural sarcasm in I’m Sorry); and he also references the 20th century classical influence of Schoenberg, Bartok, Berio, etc.
Clarkson both bares and shares his soul through an extraordinary melange of instrumental textures, whilst also placing great emphasis on words – a brave, immersive experience rather than mainstream listening; and that’s very much the unique, artistic attraction here. For example, Grandma – a fractured landscape traversed by Bearman’s highly-charged ‘spoken singing’ – deals with his gradual understanding of his German Jewish grandparents’ experiences in the Second World War (poignantly concluded by high solo harmonics from the trombonist’s violist father, Gustav). John Taylor’s Soldiering On, with words set by Clarkson, displays a journeying, string-pizzicato and brass-fired momentum, Bearman’s colourful enunciation not dissimilar to Annette Peacock; and the trombonist narrates his own verse across varietal interludes (For JT shines a light, too, on his beautifully lyrical vibrato and intonation).
Eclecticism contributes to unpredictability – all at once, a fragrant violin and piano piece, In February – from Huw Warren and Naomi Burrell – suggests the salon music of Elgar or Bridge, albeit with jazz inflections; and the Mahlerian trombone blare announcing Hungarian Folksong leads to delightful European chamber folk/jazz, pushing on with string rhythms, prepared-piano crackle and Clarkson’s own muted improvisations. Often dark, or at least weighty, these personal experiences also give way to positivity, with Bearman in fine melodic fluidity. Kind Folk’s ska-disco-infused interpretation of Kenny Wheeler’s tune, with its dextrous vocal, could be translated into a breezy radio edit; Find the Way Through features Joshua Idehen’s rap, all underpinned by Phil Merriman’s snaking, subterranean synth bass; and in Closing (Tomorrow), Mia Marlen Berg’s carthatic yet animated chant over electronic drone segues into extended, brassy, soul-bossa-nova exuberance.
The whole panoply of the composer’s imaginings is difficult to convey in words alone. But one thing is certain. Clarkson’s ability to create challenging yet engaging music from his innermost feelings – brought to life by this ensemble’s openness and experimentation – is a sure ‘listen again’.
Soldiering On is officially launched at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham on Friday 1 June, with special guests Alexander Hawkins and Mark Lockheart.
INTERVIEW: Raph Clarkson (The Dissolute Society’s Soldiering On, album launch 1 June)
PODCAST INTERVIEW: Trombonist Raph Clarkson