Trombonist/ improviser/ composer/ educator Raph Clarkson brings a higher purpose, a sense of positivity and deeply held ideals to everything he does. The new album by his group Dissolute Society is shaped as a journey into the light. Interview by Sebastian Scotney.
LondonJazz News: The first thing one notices is the sheer quality of the top-flight jazz musicians you have involved here…were they easily persuaded to get involved?
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Raph Clarkson: I do feel incredibly lucky and honoured to be making music with these fantastic musicians. I think there wasn’t too much persuasion required! Many of the musicians were involved in the first Dissolute Society record, ‘Soldiering On’, which we made in 2016-17, and so it was simply a question of saying “would you like to do this again?”, and everybody saying “yes please!”, which I think is a testament to the sense of connection and community we had built as a recording and live performing ensemble.
The musicians new to the Society for this record were similarly involved through longstanding and deep musical and interpersonal relationships – Mark Lockheart had actually guested with the band back in 2018, and since then I’ve had the joy of recording as a horn section with him and Laura Jurd for a variety of projects, including producer of ‘This is How We Grow’ Steve Baker‘s album Tonic, as well as the two albums and E.P. produced by Sonny Johns for the UK-Ghana Collaboration, Isaac Birituro and The Rail Abandon (Sonny also appears on guitar on one track!). Tom Cawley contributed elements alongside his partner Fini Bearman, and John Parricelli‘s involvement came about via his collaborations with Steve over many years.
Arthur O’Hara and Alison D’Souza were new faces also, and it was my pleasure to have them following working together on a variety of collaborative projects in the past.
LJN: Who have been the others most closely involved in the engine room – in developing the music?
RC: The answer to this once again centres around collaboration, connection and community. Four tracks (7-10 on the album) were originally commissioned by the fantastic Derby-based orchestra, Sinfonia Viva, for some of their pioneering learning and participation projects, bringing together professional musicians and children from a range of backgrounds and ages (from as young as 6 up to 18). These songs were co-written with the brilliant lyricist and writer Hazel Gould, and so Sinfonia Viva and Hazel, and these specific project collaborations, are what kicked off the creative spark for me, in terms of putting this album together. Another song (‘I Sing With The Earth’) also has its origin as a participation project commission, for Camden Music Hub’s ‘Camden New Voices’ choir in partnership with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s education strand.
It was not long after I had written these five pieces (ca. mid 2019) that I was chatting to Steve Baker and we realised that we’d both love to work together on building on these songs and creating a full album. Steve has been incredible, crucial in guiding the process over the period of two years and across the pandemic, studio engineering the recording of different elements and chunks of the music when this was possible, and then mixing and editing along the way. It was something of a jigsaw puzzle in terms of recording process and mixing/editing decisions, but a truly joyful one that really kept me going during a challenging time.
Of course I can’t answer this question without mentioning the different groups of young people who lent their voices to the record, and especially their teachers and leaders, who helped to teach the songs and organise the often complex on-site recording days. Two brothers were involved – my own, Orlando Clarkson, leading the children at his school Gillespie, and Johnny Baker, Steve’s brother, leading the children he teaches at Prospect House school. Finally, Caroline Moss at Durlston Court school – she used to teach me music when I was at school – and Sheena Masson, who helped the Camden New Voices choir to learn the music and remote record their voices.
LJN: Listening to the album, the sound that stays in the mind is that of children’s voices, particularly in ‘PLEASE!’. They really give it their all! How on earth do you get that astonishing performance energy into an “educational project”?
RC: As a workshop leader/facilitator (work which I do fairly regularly), one of the important parts of one’s skillset centres around the energy in the room – how to develop it, bring it to a high level, how to calm the group down, when to aim for quiet focussed energy, when to work towards ‘wild abandon’, or ‘structured chaos’, or tightly connected and coordinated ‘big energy’. I think one of the ways of really encouraging and bringing out that high performance energy is to discuss openly, on an equal level with the children, what the music is about, what the aims are, inviting questions and curiosity from the group as well as fostering understanding and the reasons behind what we are doing together. All of this also connects to children having a sense of agency and ownership over what they are doing.
With ‘PLEASE!’, for example, while the words are mine and Hazel’s, it didn’t take much more than explaining to the children that this music was about them being listened to, their voices being important, about those moments when they feel ignored or patronised and what they would really want to express in response, for them to unleash their voices in the thrilling manner you can hear on the recording. It was about them owning their voices and telling the world what they think, and once they realised that, there was no stopping them!
LJN: Does the album have some kind of ‘main message’ – perhaps about the importance of nurturing creativity?
RC: I think the idea of nurturing creativity is definitely in there – I would say that it is part of the wider idea of taking children’s voices deeply seriously, learning from them, their curiosity, playfulness, embracing of pure joy, their innocence; and for sure, the unbridled imagination that children have and bring to bear on their creative endeavours is something that should be celebrated and treasured, and something that can significantly inspire us in our adult lives.
There are other ideas that intertwine and connect to this – broader themes of love, connection and collaboration, especially with music, and the joy of making it together, at the heart of these.
There is also a strong theme of learning, and indeed growing; learning about our world, its history, the tension/balance between technology and nature, and how by embracing our mistakes, we can grow and develop as people in a profound way.
LJN: You have a track called Ada Lovelace… what’s the story there?
RC: This song was one of those originally commissioned by Sinfonia Viva, as part of a project exploring algorithms and coding through/via music. Ada Lovelace is an extraordinary historical figure, in that she is credited with writing what many consider to be the very first algorithm, paving the way for (ultimately) the development of computers and coding. She achieved this as a young woman, which is equally extraordinary in an era and culture that was extremely patriarchal, especially so in the realm of science and mathematics – and in fact, Ada Lovelace Day is now marked each year on the 11th of October, celebrating the achievements of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Hazel Gould wrote a beautiful set of lyrics to tell Ada’s story, and I was really delighted with how the music came out – and so it had to go on the album!
LJN: It is a studio album and yet it sounds very “live”… If you could dream of a venue for the ideal performance of this music, where would it be?
RC: Goodness, a very difficult question to answer! I think that in keeping with the core idea of the album, that of taking children’s voices deeply seriously, I would want to present this music and these performers, young and old, on a stage which is renowned for showcasing ‘mainstage’ artistic work – somewhere with a rich cultural heritage. Furthermore, it would be important for me that children are able to perform in public spaces and venues/situations that are truly their cultural heritage, the use and experiencing of which are perhaps even their birthright.
For me personally, growing up in London, venues such as those at the Southbank Centre or the Barbican are good examples of this; and so I dream of the Dissolute Society sharing somewhere like the Royal Festival Hall stage alongside London schoolchildren, who can rightly call that venue home, call it theirs, in front of an audience that represents their community – friends, family, and the public.