FEATURE: Raph Clarkson (new album, Resolute, now available)

Raph Clarkson
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Within the crowded border territories between idioms sought out by adventurous contemporary musicians, and despite his ease in all kinds of orthodox settings too, composer and trombonist Raph Clarkson has found a space that’s uniquely his own. On the release of a new album, Resolute (Babel on bandcamp), John Fordham explores his music:

London-born Raph Clarkson has played everything from trad jazz to salsa, ska, contemporary-classical music and total improvisation over the past decade, though UK audiences have come to know him best as a member of the innovative and globetrotting punk-jazz outfit World Service Project. But if all that diversity typifies not only a jazz performer’s adaptability but also the multi-tasking pragmatism of a working musician, Clarkson is nonetheless a focused and serious creative artist with a compulsion to tread his own path – and never more so than over the two years since he first formed his Dissolute Society ensemble, and the 2019 successor he now calls Resolute. The group’s eponymously-titled album is launched today (26 April).

When LondonJazz News reported the arrival of the Dissolute Society’s debut Soldiering On last year, Clarkson told LJN writer Peter Bacon that one of the group’s “earliest iterations was a sort of early-music/folk/contemporary jazz crossover ensemble I put together”. The mature version, however, was something startlingly different. Soldiering On was a volatile mix of dissonant free-jazz squalls, spoken-word soliloquies, graceful violin/piano dialogues, and references to the soundworlds of Arnold Schoenberg or Bela Bartok alongside those of the departed UK jazz heroes the project was dedicated to – Kenny Wheeler, and Clarkson’s York University mentor, pianist John Taylor, whose composition furnished the title track. Clarkson had set himself the double challenge of paying homage to his jazz roots (with Wheeler’s Kind Folk and Taylor’s title piece on the tracklist, and UK jazz luminaries Huw Warren and Laura Jurd in the lineup), and to a European family history including that of his German-Jewish émigrée grandmother, the actress Sabine Michael, his late mother Micaela Comberti – an early-music violinist – and viola-playing father Gustav (Clarkson), who joined him on the recording. “After many years of trying to work out what I wanted to do creatively as a musician/artist,” Clarkson told Bacon, “I realised that expressing what makes me made the most sense.”

New album Resolute
Resolute both broadens and loosens that autobiographical approach, tapping inspirational musical relationships Clarkson forged through the Dissolute Society’s life on the road last year, personal insights into the scares and revelations of mental-health ordeals, and his illuminating experiences in music education, particularly with children struggling to communicate. The edgy and extraordinary Nigerian performance-poet Gboyega Odubanjo is a key presence this time (a connection triggered by a chance encounter at on a workshop gig), as are Clarkson’s own often poignant spoken reflections. Infusing it all is the collective energy of the band – expressed in swirlingly jazzy Fender Rhodes breaks or ghostly synth sounds, echo-laden trombone statements, free-percussion chatters or soft ambient hums, all morphed and modified by the leader’s dexterity with effects-pedals, and by Liran Donin’s canny post-production. And if there are fewer explicit references to jazz, which is more seamlessly blended into Clarkson’s wider musical palette here, his college-founded core threesome with keyboardist Phil Merriman and drummer Simon Roth still play a creatively jazz-nuanced role.
“This album wasn’t set up like Dissolute Society, which had quite a pre-planned structure,” Raph Clarkson observes. “Resolute came out of gigs we did with subgroups of that ensemble, one of which was a workshop with Phil, Simon and me, plus Huw Warren, and with Stuart Silver speaking. We met Gboyega on it, and I was immediately taken by his voice. We did some gigs together, which felt amazing – and on one in Brighton, we were offered the venue’s live recording setup. Though we never intended it at the time, what was captured then turned out to be the basis of this album.”

Clarkson acknowledges that in including so much expository spoken material in his work, often about tough subjects, he breaks with some of jazz-culture’s most ingrained habits – preferences for familiar or familiar-sounding tunes and swing grooves, for instance, or the ascetic creed that the fascinating movement of sounds in time needs no verbal translations. “Perhaps I do deal with some difficult areas, particularly from a British cultural perspective,” Clarkson muses. “But words and music together offer a wonderful way of having a conversation about them, and about what it means to be human.” Resolute includes a particularly poignant example of that, on a track called The Field in which the leader’s quietly-intoned description of a field in a summer sunset eloquently segues into echoing, choral-horn electronics that fade to silence. “That came from a conversation I had on a school workshop with a boy of seven, who was autistic, and struggled with communication and confidence,” Clarkson explains. “I’d been trying to teach him trumpet, and he never made a single sound. I asked him if he sometimes had pictures in his head, and he told me if he thought of a field before he went to sleep, it calmed him down. The description of the field on the album are his words.”

Raph Clarkson’s diverse musical influences as a child, and the excitement of discovering the jazz world of Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor in his student years (“their music touched me more than the American jazz tradition did”) nurtured an openness that steadily widened in his 20s with Keith Tippett’s and Julie Tippetts’ impact on his appreciation of free improvisation, and the later connections with gospel music, South African jazz, punk, funk and ambient electronics that have progressively threaded and intertwined in his work.

“When I was younger I had big hang-ups about comparing myself to the jazz tradition, and to the people who are absolutely fluent in it,” Clarkson recalls. “Of course, I still love playing straightahead jazz and swing. But about five years ago, when I was going through a bit of a difficult time, I tried one of those therapeutic exercises where you’re supposed to ask people close to you what they value about you. I asked Phil Merriman, who I’d known since uni, and he said: “the stuff you do is always personal”. I’d been wanting to put my own band together for a while, but until then I was too anxious about it. But when Phil said that, something clicked – I realised that I don’t have to mimic a classic tradition to do something authentic. I can do something that’s authentically me.”

LINK: Resolute is on Bandcamp

Categories: Features/Interviews

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