Liner Notes for Chris Abelen: Songs on the eve of dismissal
By Victor L. Schermer, Senior Staff Writer, All About Jazz
Chris Abelen Music Productions – CAMP 008
CD, Album; Netherlands
Release date: 15 Jan 2018
Genre: Jazz, Pop
Style: Vocal, Fusion, Jazz-Funk, Modal
This album is the second part of a larger project spearheaded by Dutch trombonist, band leader, and entrepreneur Chris Abelen that includes the previously issued CD, A Day at the Office. Taken together, the two recordings consist of a musical journey through the modern corporate office, an unlikely musical theme but one which speaks directly to the lives of the many who experience a wide range of emotions in the course of their work day.
Abelen is noted for his readiness to take chances and move to the edge of what is happening. In this album, the risk he takes is to join with lyricist Bastiaan Geleijnse in producing a song cycle about the existential situation of the corporate workplace, with its alienation and ennui, which was already critiqued in another era by Marx, Kierkegaard, Durkheim, and others, but became magnified with the resurgence of corporate greed and a cybernetic view of the employee as a replaceable piece of software. In this respect, the album is a testament to “Generation X” born after the baby boomers, who were disaffected and directionless in jobs of uncertain duration. It is also relevant in a different way for Millennials who have entered into the work force with unrealistic expectations, often leading to disillusionment. Pop and rock music contains strains of these struggles, but this is, so far as I know, the first jazz-infused album of songs that lament the plight of the office worker during these heady times.
The album is also unique in that it’s more than a “theme” album: It’s a “concept” album, taking on in depth and detail a subject that is rarely given musical form, except in rare Broadway shows like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The words and music of Songs on the eve of dismissal convey a genuine sense of what it’s like to invest in a job in which you hardly know what’s expected of you and in which you are regarded by your employer as a replaceable part. Although unique, it follows a tradition in jazz, rock and funk, of allusions to personal and societal dilemmas and conflicts. The blues itself laments our suffering while at the same time providing a healing balm for it. Folk songs like “John Henry” sing of the sadness of the laborer (“he put down his hammer and he died…”) The more modern little known jazz tune, Bob Dorough’s “A Small Day Tomorrow,” is about trading “all of those big wheels with all of their big deals” for a weekend “drop out and copout.” This album takes up such themes of workplace blues in a full-blooded, full-throated way, probing the emotional life of a woman (whose words are sung beautifully by Lorena del Mar) who is going lose a meaningless job that is paradoxically the only meaning she’s got. Psychoanalysts, take out your notebooks!
Surprisingly, though, rather than sending you into a spiral of depression, the music is very listenable and enjoyable. Del Mar sings with the litheness of the vocalists of the swing era. To accompany her, Abelen brought together a septet consisting of himself (a well-heeled master trombonist) with younger, mostly Dutch and German players (Angelo Verploegen, trumpet, Floris van der Vlugt, alto saxophone,Tini Thomsen, bass clarinet and baritone saxophone; and the rhythm section of Thijs Huijbens, guitar, Ulrich Wentzlaff-Eggebert, bass, and Yonga Sun, drums) who competently execute arrangements which are interesting on their own but do not intrude on the vocalist. What’s really fascinating is the way that arranger Abelen has been able to combine funky guitar/bass/drums rhythmic patterns with post-bop, modal jazz improvisations into a seamless fit. This melding of genres harks back to Miles Davis’ fusion bands. It is helped along by fine ensemble work of the reeds and trumpet acting as a sort of Greek tragic chorus behind del Mar’s laments and at times achieving the resonance of a Bach chorale. So much is going on, and yet it all comes together so well that you can choose to enjoy the music as background or sink your teeth into it for the deeper experience it conveys.
A run-through of the tracks will give a further idea of what is happening in this album. In the first track, the title tune “Song on the eve of dismissal,” the frustrated employee cries out her virtues amid all the tensions of the workplace. The band serves as a chorus of co-workers while the rhythm section pounds out its agreement with the singer. All sound out the existential nature of work – there is no forgiveness. As an interlude, Abelen delivers a solid straight-ahead trombone solo with finesse and tone inspired by the likes of Urbie Green and J.J. Johnson.
In “Prayer to the shareholder,” the supplicant’s “religion”is the corporate mentality and the godhead is the stock price. In protest, bass and drums pound out a funk-style chant followed by a chorale of trombone and van der Vlugt’s saxophone. It’s a profound and sardonic critique of corporate short-termism. Some relief is required, so in the next song, “Off-site weekend,” we find that Thomsen’s baritone saxophone gives us a light, swinging break from the work site. It’s the company picnic. But a four note descending scale in the instrumental chorus betrays the singer’s half-hearted attempt to be in the mood for a party.
“Imposter syndrome” offers a sad lament stemming from an inferiority complex. We can all recognize the gloomy outlook on self that takes over when we are being squeezed out of a job. “I am fake/ a cheat/ a fraud.” Huijben’s guitar tells the story, for which Del Mar finds the words. Van der Vlugt responds to del Mar’s self-chastisement with a lyrical, ascending alto saxophone solo and then interacts with the singer as if to affirm and comfort her, but to no avail. In the next song, “Out of the box,” which starts with a brief trombone phrase, the singer feels imprisoned, isolated. How does she get out of the box, the situation? The trombone plays the sustained notes of Fate. The singer responds, “Release me, I pray.”
Back “At home,” the singer/employee leaves a voice message for a friend, cancelling a date. She thinks, “At home, there’s time and peace sublime,” but again the job intrudes: “I have to plough through lots of work tonight.” Here the horns and rhythm section work together to make a funky situation funkier.
Now we are reaching the climax of the situation. With “Nobody told me,” the frustrated employee realizes that the signs are that she’s going to be fired. “Suddenly it all makes sense, they are sending me away.” Everything goes wrong; nothing works. “I know that they know I am over and gone.” A relentless baritone sax riff and Sun’s marching drums chart the bad news. She is going to be axed.
Her friend senses the pending disaster. Requesting “Honey text me back,” he or she is very worried and texts the distraught employee. The music consists of a ballad with a walking rhythm in which Thomsen’s bass clarinet sings sadly like a commiserating friend. The alto saxophone chimes in, forming a “support group” for their friend.
Finally, the guillotine comes down. “I hate to let you go” is the exit interview. The boss offers little commiseration: “I hate to let you go. We must stay future proof.” Verploegen’s trumpet shouts out the inner scream of the worker who realizes her worst fear has been realized.
The troubling themes and musical expressiveness of Songs on the eve of dismissal are suggestive of a dramatic theater piece or opera, and indeed, Abelen and Geleijnse are finalizing the script for a stage production comprising the Songs. But the wonderful thing about this recording is that you can either get out the Kleenex or enjoy the music the way you would any great jazz vocalist with a terrific band. This dual function of jazz is part of a tradition. You can listen to Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra either way. It’s only possible with a composer, lyricist, singer, band, and arranger like those in this album who know how to make it work.