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Jack Davies: Inventing Himself

Duncan Heining By

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"Jack's formal education has given him useful tools but above all he has drive and determination and ideas, which cannot be taught." class="f-right">—Colin Towns, composer, bandleader
and producer of The Jack Davies Big Band (V&V, 2012).

The jazz big band is a wondrous beast. Caught in movement and it's like a big cat, with barely contained violence ready to strike. It can be subtle; smooth, even, but when it rolls over and acts all coy and gentle, watch out. Get too close and it will scar you for life.

Just 26 years old and a graduate from two of Britain's top music academies, trumpeter/composer Jack Davies knows this already. His Jack Davies is a stellar ensemble of young and not quite so young talents ranging from tenorist Josh Arcoleo and guitarist Alex Munk to trumpeter Nick Smart and alto saxophonist Martin Speake. But then it takes more than fine soloists to make great big band music and the orchestra's eponymous debut is just that. Produced by composer/bandleader Colin Towns, this is scarily mature music. This band is a beast and the music it dances to strikes hard and deep.

It was whilst doing his post-grad at London Royal Academy of Music that Davies won the Deutsche Bank Award for Performance and Composition. Winning that prize has enabled him to set up his own label, V&V Music, and release not one but three debut CDs this year.

"The Deutsche Bank runs the prize at a few different conservatoires," says Davies. "You get £10,000, a business mentor and training course to help you set up a creative enterprise. For me that was about recording these three records and setting up my own label."

Davies studied classical music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where he won the Goronwy Evans Brass Prize. He brings to jazz an intriguing mixture of inspirations, which shows in the sheer breadth and variety of music featured on The Jack Davies Big Band, Southbound and Flea Circus.

"I'm a massive fan of Ellington," says Davies. "That was one of the first things I was exposed to and what intrigued me was how he would write these almost concertos and pieces with no improvisation at all for big bands. And sometimes he would voice things across sections rather than having trombone or saxophone voicings. He'd blur the lines more—because he was writing so much for individuals. That's what I try to do and, with a band so full of incredible musicians, I know their playing well enough to know what they like doing and what they don't. So, I try to give them things they enjoy playing and give them their freedom in that way."

From the classical side of his training, comes an emphasis on structure and architecture that allows for a coherence and unusual integrity in his music, albeit one that never obstructs the primal, bestial potential of the jazz.

"I want to get away from the jazz tradition of head-solo-head and shout chorus and backing," Davies explains. "So, from a structural point of view, there's more of an influence from classical music. And I draw on my experience of sitting in orchestras in how use the brass section. The sounds I use are more those you get with classical brass. That's also something that [pianist] Peter Saberton did. I played with him as part of the London Jazz Orchestra a few times and I was able to get inside of that music. His music is quite classically-influenced in some ways and I think he influenced me in certain ways."

It's fascinating that one of Davies' heroes is the American maverick composer Charles Ives, someone that he compares—with due deference to both—with a favorite rock band, The Descendents.

"It's true," he says. "I'm a big fan of Charles Ives. When we did the album launch, we did an arrangement of three Ives songs that seemed to work really naturally with the rest of the set. That showed, more than I'd realized, how that writing had affected me. Strangely enough, his music reminds me of a punk band I was into in my teens [laughing] called The Descendents, which then became the band, All. They will have several normal length tracks and then a couple that are just a few seconds long. Ives does exactly the same thing in some of his pieces. The middle movement of a suite will be traditional length but the first will be twenty seconds long. It's quite playful and sounds incredibly modern given how old it is."

Colin Towns, the album's producer, was a big help in making the big band CD and Davies joined Towns' Mask Orchestra for a performance of the composer's Visions of Miles at Ronnie's last fall.


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