INTERVIEW: Jessica Radcliffe (debut album Remembrance Project out now, launch tour in March)

Jessica Radcliffe
Photo credit: Léa L’Attentive
Vocalist JESSICA RADCLIFFE was the lead singer with NYJO from 2012 to 2014, following on in that role after Emma Smith. However, her debut album, has nothing of swing repertoire or standards or big bands or vocal display. Her Remembrance Project is  about the experience of two world wars. She explains the steps that have led her to record this very personal project. Interview by  Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: You’re from a musical family…

Jessica Radcliffe: Yes, both of my siblings are professional musicians, my mother was a fantastic Head of Music, and I have a number of relatives on both sides, going back many generations who are and were professional musicians. Except for my siblings, and myself who work in the jazz/pit musician vein, the rest of my musical relatives are classical pianists, bassoonists, cellists and composers.

LJN: And you first stepped out to sing in front of a big band at 13?!

JR: Yes! My parents ran a semi-pro big band near Bristol. The vocalist was sick on the day of their Christmas gig and so I got a panicked call from mum, who had programmed all of the songs I knew the lyrics to. ALL of the Christmas songs, Hopelessly Devoted To You and Streetlife. I had always loved musical theatre, so began to expand my rep and after a while found myself singing with local Bristol-based bands.

When my brother (Louis Dowdeswell) first got with of NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra), we all headed up and I started playing with the group on saxophone. After a couple of weeks I tried my hand at the vocal chair, started gigging, and was encouraged by the MDs to apply for music college. So, big band was definitely the way in for me.

LJN: And you had a specialist music education…

JR: Very much so – I didn’t have the best experience at primary school, so my mum started looking into options for my secondary education early. I spent a long time travelling around nearby private schools, auditioning for scholarships. I was fortunate enough to be offered a Specialist Music place at Wells Cathedral School on piano and clarinet.

I was in a particularly driven year – we were constantly writing silly songs, teaching each other our instruments and accompanying each other. I learnt an awful lot from the people around me. The school never particularly supported my decision to study jazz singing, but the fundamental musical classical education I received there has been integral to shaping my musicianship to this day.

LJN: Where does your interest in the Great War come from?

JR: When I was in my third year at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, I ran a project with the other vocalist in my year on the music of WWII, which we called Behind The Blitz and mainly focused on the influence of vocal groups such as The Andrews Sisters. As part of our research, we made a trip to Bristol to interview two veterans who I knew from my time singing with the local dance bands. The experience was completely enlightening, and revealed to me just how much culture-change over the last century affects our understanding of a situation.

The next year, I was reflecting on this and realized that, with the centenary of the Great War was approaching, I knew little or nothing about the conflict that shaped the last 100 years of our society. I have always had a passion for history in general and, as a music specialist, was required to give up the subject after Year 7, and so am always ready to take advantage of an excuse to read up about events!

LJN: Do you have the sense that the English composers active in the first half of the 20th century have left their mark?

JR: Oh, absolutely. And not only left their mark – as a harmonic sound world the music of Holst, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and the like was more of a starting point for me than the jazz influences that I discovered later in my musical development. In fact, By A Bierside is an arrangement of Ivor Gurney’s own piece that I haven’t altered harmonically at all! Holst was also my great grandmother’s godfather, and so I was played a lot of his music as a child. His influence is clear in the opening of Dulce Et Decorum Est, which is intentionally reminiscent of his Mars.

LJN: What were the first steps in the Remembrance Project?

JR: In my final year at Trinity, I was placed in the composition elective, for which we needed to present a portfolio of three original tunes as a springboard for a personal project. I had never managed to finish a piece of writing, but was already absorbed in my reading on the war, and had a grasp on WWI poetry, which I had studied for A Level literature. I began working on some settings for my favourite poems, feeling that I would have more success with a stimulus that I was confident with. I presented and performed these compositions, which were well received by my tutors. They encouraged me to pursue the project for my final performance. I wrote two more pieces and had a set for which I received a First.

Over the next two years, I struggled to pull some money together in order to record the album. On a whim I applied to be a contestant of ITV’s The Chase, my mum’s TV entertainment of choice. I was given an interview, audition and 12 hours notice to be on the show. I beat Mark ’The Beast’ Labbett as part of a brilliant team of three (I was by far the weakest link!) and took home the funding for my debut album.

LJN: What were the consequences of the trip you made to the Western Front battlefields?

JR: I had a finished set of five pieces, and read a mountain of books, but was beginning to feel distant from the individuals that I was trying to understand. The language and culture barrier made the contemporary literature read quite alien to me and so I decided to make a pilgrimage of the Somme and Ypres battlefields, in order to reconnect with their stories. I travelled around on my own for 10 days, visiting cemeteries, museums, cycling over battlefields and documenting my experiences. This helped me to figure out which experiences I wanted to focus on that I felt were missing from the set so far. I wrote the last five pieces in the space of a week, ready for their debut performance in the EFG London Jazz Festival, 2016.

LJN: Who is in the band and how long have you all been together?

JR: Nearly all of the musicians in the band have been involved with the project right from the very beginning. Pianist Sam James and trumpeter Tom Dennis were in my year at Trinity and I had played a lot with bassist Joe Downard in NYJO. Will Glaser joined the project for the 2016 LJF gig and brought a fantastic energy. Mark Lockheart was one of my composition tutors, and so although he did not perform the music with us publicly before the album recording, he has always been familiar with the project.

Jessica Radcliffe and band
Photo credit: Curtis Schwartz
LJN: How did the compositions on the album find their final shape?

JR: Every composition looks different on the page. Some are through composed, some are just a few bars long, some are graphic scores… I would always start from the written stimulus and annotate it heavily. Then I would find a motif, bass line or musical technique and bring it to a rehearsal to workshop. As a group we would play around the ideas and develop some ideas for structure and decide whether or not any more writing was needed. I really enjoy working in this organic way – I feel that it encourages the whole ensemble to bring their own personality and sound for the music, so that they feel ownership over the music, too.

LJN: Are the players for the launch tour the same as on the album?

JR: Yes, in general. As the music was developed so much with these musicians in mind, and they have had so much creative input over the finished project, I feel it is important to the authenticity on the music to maintain the line up. We were excited to welcome Laura Jurd into the ensemble for the launch performance at Pizza Express last December. I have been playing with Laura since my days in NYJO, and it was fantastic to hear her play on my original music.

LJN: When did you record and is it “as-live”?

JR: We recorded in June 2017 at Curtis Schwartz’s studio in Ardingly. It was a wonderful experience. Everything was completely as live, and many of the tracks are first takes. It’s a very freeing feeling to go into the studio so well rehearsed and confident that your musicians are completely on the same page conceptually. I feel very lucky to be able to work with such a dedicated group, and Curtis captured the live sound beautifully and with great musical intention.

LJN: How did the launch performance go and when is the launch tour by the way?

JR: The launch performance was an amazing night. We sold out Pizza Express Soho, performed to a silent audience and received a standing ovation! Kevin Le Gendre reviewed the event for Jazzwise the next day.

We are taking the music on a national launch tour in March.

LJN: Do you think that you will have the sense at some point that the project is complete/done/finished/has served its purpose… and that you will want/need to move on from it?

JR: The artistic intention behind the project is to present the timeless human experience of conflict to a contemporary audience, in order to highlight its ongoing relevance. I feel that it is and forever will be important to remind ourselves of the fragility of peace and understand our responsibility in protecting that, so the music will always have a place.

However, I can feel myself itching to write more widely about other issues and am cooking up ideas for a new writing project to follow this… watch this space!


9 March: Chelsea Pensioners, London
10 March: The Bull’s Head, Barnes
11 March: Whiskey Jar, Manchester
12 March: Studio 2, Parr St Liverpool
13 March: The Lescar, Sheffield
22 March: The Vortex, London
26 March: Flute and Tankard, Cardiff
30 March: Exeter Phoenix
31 March: Ashburton Arts Centre

LINK: Jessica Radcliffe’s website

Categories: Features/Interviews

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