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Josephine Davies: Way Out East: New Directions In Jazz

Photo credit: Rob Blackham

Chris May By

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The process, since we started Satori, has been one of trusting the music, trusting each other and, for me, trusting myself enough to let go of the need for a sense of direction. It's about trusting the process rather than thinking about what should happen. This album is definitely more evolved in terms of us knowing it doesn’t really matter what happens: let’s just play and let’s have fun. —Josephine Davies
Compared to many other bands which have emerged on London's paradigm-shifting jazz scene since the mid 2010s, saxophonist and composer Josephine Davies' trio Satori has attracted relatively little noise. There has been high praise from specialist critics but little mainstream media coverage and even less social media chatter. This may be because, unlike many of its contemporaries, Satori, though rhythmically rich, is not infused with dancefloor-friendly grooves. Davies instead looks to Eastern culture, particularly to Buddhist texts and meditation techniques, for part of her inspiration. In an age of instant gratification, Satori is not a quick fix.

But neither is it a difficult or inaccessible one. And make no mistake, Satori is among the most engaging young bands on the British scene. The group is, as it were, yin to the yang of London's similarly constituted Binker and Moses, tenor saxophonist Binker Golding's pianoless duo with Mercury Prize-shortlisted drummer Moses Boyd. Binker & Moses is visceral and loud and edgy. Satori is cerebral and nuanced and reflective. Like Binker & Moses it is free of dense harmonic structures and possesses an exalted lyricism which is, in a quieter way, just as intense. Satori has sinew. Davies, for a start, has an exhilarating grasp of mid and low-end multiphonics, broken notes and other tonal distortions which touch on the corporeal without severing her leaning towards the ethereal.

Brought up in Shetland, an archipelago in the Scottish Northern Isles, and later in East England, Davies moved to London to study at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. She enrolled on the classical saxophone course but early on had a jazz epiphany and switched courses. After graduating, and while working as professional jazz musician, Davies went back to college to study psychology and psychotherapy. She also took up meditation and immersed herself in Buddhist philosophy. The combination led to the formation of Satori and it continues to shape the direction of the band's music.

Satori's third album, autumn 2020's How Can We Wake? (Whirlwind), is one of the year's most striking releases. It follows Satori (2017) and In The Corners Of Clouds (2018), both also on the Whirlwind label. The bassist on all three Satori albums is Dave Whitford, and the drummer on the most recent two is James Maddren, who replaced the debut disc's Paul Clarvis.

Among Davies' other projects is her big band, Eos, and the duo Silver Lining, which she formed with her partner, the bassist Ben Somers, after they took a flat together near Hastings, on England's south coast, in March 2020. Davies says they may or may not return to London (which is just over fifty miles to the north).

In this interview, Davies describes her formative jazz influences, the experiences which led to the formation of Satori, the creative process which shapes its music, the responsibilities of bandleading, and more. She ends by talking about six albums which have been key to her development as a saxophonist and composer (six being a more or less arbitrary number imposed on her by AllAboutJazz).

All About Jazz: Please would you tell us about the first jazz album you heard and the circumstances in which you heard it?

Josephine Davies: I remember the occasion very well though I'm not exactly sure what the album was. It might have been one of John Coltrane's. I'd just started at Guildhall School and it was in the Halls of Residence. I was on the classical saxophone course, which I was not really enjoying. Anyway, someone in another room was playing a jazz saxophone album. And I thought, wow! I want to learn about that. I discovered Coltrane very quickly after that moment, so that might be why I'm thinking it was one of his albums. But right then it was the sound of jazz that grabbed me.

AAJ: Presumably the Guildhall let you switch over to a jazz saxophone course?

JD: I had to speak to the college prinicipal. It went easily because when I went into his office I saw a photo which looked familiar. I said, where's that? It was in the Shetland Isles. So we started talking about the Shetlands. Ten minutes later he said what did you want to see me about? I said I've just discovered jazz and I want to change courses. And he said, well, by all means, it's your life, you can join the jazz course but you will still have to take your classical end of year exams and your jazz exams, so you'll have double work load. I said yeah, cool, I'm up for it. Then I failed everything. So I had to spend that summer practising intensely in order to get through the retakes. Fortunately, I did. But it was not a fun experience.

AAJ: You mentioned John Coltrane. Who were your other early influences on jazz saxophone?

JD: At first there was a lot of Ornette Coleman. On the classical course I was playing alto and I started the jazz course on alto, too. In the Guildhall library they had a great record collection and I discovered The Shape Of Jazz To Come. I fell in love with the sound. Then I came across Sonny Rollins, particularly Way Out West. I still absolutely love that album. It's a trio album so perhaps there is a link to Satori there. And Albert Ayler, there was something there that got me really excited. So that's when I switched to tenor. I was into Sonny Stitt, too. And I nearly bought a baritone, because I also got into Pepper Adams. I checked out loads of Charlie Parker, as any budding jazz musician should, and loads of Miles Davis. Then there were more recent things like Kenny Wheeler, his band with Stan Sulzmann—I started having some lessons with him. That lead me further into the British scene. I got really into Iain Ballamy and Julian Arguelles and listened to all the Loose Tubes and Django Bates albums. I just wanted to eat up everything that was in the Guildhall library.

AAJ: Some time after you'd left Guildhall and were working as a professional musician you went back to college to study psychotherapy, and then you practised as a psychotherapist. Along with meditation, psychotherapy would seem to have been a formative, and continuing, influence on the direction of Satori.

JD: That was from 2010 to 2014. I wasn't a bandleader then, I was a sideperson in various bands. I had always been interested in psychology and I found I had the time to take this course in existential psychotherapy. I carried on gigging. As it happened, the bands I was playing with then were all quite harmonically dense and tightly structured. Psychotherapy was definitely a factor in my decision to have a band that was much more minimalist, something that would really promote freedom of sound, where you did not have to worry about things like harmony and structure and form.

AAJ: After playing in more prescriptive, structured bands, Satori must be a liberating experience. Does it also require an extra degree of courage, to play without a supportive framework, without signposts?

JD: For me, I've got to the point where it's not different. Because what I want to do is stop thinking and play and be in the moment. Which is very much linked to meditation and to my work as a psychotherapist. It's about trusting the process rather than thinking ahead about what should happen. The more I have that mindset in whatever I do, the more I enjoy it and the more connection I feel with whoever I'm with. That is I think the most important bit. It's not about getting the notes right or saying the right thing to a psychotherapy client. And it's not about staying in the moment. It's about a process of noticing you've left and that's fine, you'll come back to it.

AAJ: Do you still practise as a psychotherapist?

JD: I stopped a couple of years ago because I started doing so much gigging and touring. I would say I'm taking an extended sabbatical.

AAJ: How do you feel Satori has developed over the course of the three albums you have made so far?

JD: The process, since we started, has been one of trusting the music, trusting each other, and for me, trusting myself enough to really let go of the need for a sense of direction when I'm playing or any notion of what I ought to be sounding like or who I should be emulating. This third album is definitely more evolved in terms of us knowing it doesn't really matter what happens: let's just play. And because it's a live album as well, there's a heightened sense of let's have fun—we've got these sort of tunes, some of which are just a basic idea, and we don't have to end up in a certain place, we can start in time but we can let go of the time, we don't know who's going to do what, when, and it just doesn't matter. With this album, there's no sense of "should." I think that's where we've got to as a trio. Being completely free with each other, to see what happens.

AAJ: Given that loose, minimal structure, how do you approach writing for Satori?

JD: It is very much a case of less is more. A lot of the time I'll come up with a basic idea, but then we start playing and I might ask James, for instance, what do you feel on this? We kind of work the idea up as a trio. So it's not entirely fair to say that I'm the composer. Like "Daya: compassion" on the album. We originally started playing that in waltz time and it just wasn't quite working. So we talked about it and I said, OK, let's get rid of the idea that it's in a time signature. That completely changed the sound. Again, it was about letting go of the idea of stating something.

AAJ: Why did Paul Clarvis stop playing with the band after the first album?

JD: It was a musical departure. I still play with Paul in a variety of other bands. I absolutely adore his playing. For Satori though it felt like it was moving in a slightly different direction and there was a sound that I was looking for which was different from Paul's sound. It was just that bandleader experience of finding something that clicked and when it happened realising that's where you've gone—and that it means a change of personnel. Paul was very gracious about it. He said, absolutely, you're the bandleader, you have to go where your musical development takes you. He was really lovely and we're still very great friends.

AAJ: People don't usually think about the responsibilities of being a bandleader when they're listening to the music. But it's a thing in itself, isn't it?

JD: I really love leading a band because it gives me a chance to have a vision and make that vision a reality. There are parts of it which I don't love, for example being my own manager and having to hustle for gigs. Or financing it. When we tour I will want to treat the band well so I will often take no fee or less of a fee myself in order to make sure that they get paid properly and that we have good accommodation. Regarding how you deal with making changes in personnel, integrity is really important. A bandleader has to be straightforward and talk to a musician when they want the band to go in a different direction. Obviously, it's not something any sideperson wants to hear, but when it needs to be done, it has to be done, because you have to follow your artistic vision. There's one bandleader who's quite well known for not speaking to a musician before making a change. I won't mention his name. But if he wants to change a musician, the first that musician might know about it is when he sees the band is doing a gig and he's not been included. It's so disrespectful. Maintaining your artistic integrity inevitably means making changes. It's just something that's part and parcel about being a bandleader. But you have to do it respectfully.

AAJ: Psychotherapy aims to help people attain, not necessarily serenity, but a sense of balance and acceptance. So does meditation. The word satori itself suggests this. Have you reached anything approaching serenity yourself or is it more aspirational?

JD: I'm definitely not a serene person. Oh no. I quite easily get incredibly anxious and neurotic and have a lot of problems with sleeping and relaxing. I'm not a formal meditator and I find it really, really difficult to do, but I also know that to be healthy I need to engage with these incredible ancient practices, like meditation and reading wisdom every day. Exercise helps, as well. I'm still in my wetsuit, swimming in the sea every day.

AAJ: We've mainly talked about Satori, because of the new album. Can we finish by talking about your plans for Eos?

JD: I am in the process of applying to Women Make Music to fund recording an album. At the moment it's really difficult. On the one hand, I could apply for a grant to do it digitally, as in we'll play our separate parts in isolation and then a magician like Alex Bonney [who recorded and mixed How Can We Wake?] will put it all together for me. Or I can keep my fingers crossed and apply for the funding to hire a studio and at some point in the future record the album live as a band. Which would obviously be preferable. But nobody knows what's going to happen. One way or another I want to make an album. It's really important to me to continue that band.

AAJ: Between Eos and Satori and Silver Lining you're addressing the full spectrum of jazz instrumentation.

JD: Yes. It gives me different experiences. It's quite holistic to have that span. It's really satisfying.

JOSEPHINE DAVIES: SIX MUSICAL MILESTONES

I found it extremely useful getting lots of possible choices down to just six albums. They come in a particular order, because I was thinking about my overall development as musician and a composer.

John Coltrane
Crescent
Impulse!, 1964

This album was definitely an influence on my decision to become a tenor player. I've chosen this one rather than another by John Coltrane because it was the first one I bought. So it made a massive impact. There's so much here about Coltrane's sound and expressing his personality and spirituality and it has an incredibly beautiful, unique, dynamic sound. It was a strong statement about where he was at that time. So it was a huge influence on me as a player. The next two albums were important to my development as an overall musician rather than only as a saxophonist.

Ornette Coleman
At The Golden Circle Stockholm
Blue Note, 1966

This is so joyous and abandoned. Listening to this album I started to realise that time can mean all sorts of different things. It can be present but not metronomic, or absent but still rhythmic and driving. That realisation definitely influenced setting up Satori and the direction the group has taken over the three albums we've made so far.

Gerry Hemingway
Devils Paradise
Clean Feed, 2003

This had a similar influence over the way Satori has developed. It's not so much about Ellery Eskelin on tenor, though he's really great. It's about sheer irreverence because it's everything at the same time. It's not just free music, there's also groove in there and melody. It's kind of bonkers and beautiful. It transcends genre in a way. It makes me think about the power of authenticity: it's not about what you play it's about how you play it.

Maria Schneider
Concert In The Garden
ArtistShare, 2004

This particularly stimulated my development as a composer and thinking about the power of melody. What Maria Schneider was doing at that point was melodic ideas. It also got me thinking about orchestration, because a big band can be, not necessarily all the time, but it can be a little bit... samey. And what people like Maria Schneider do is mix it all up, so that you have these massively different soundscapes, which I really wanted to get into when I was writing for Eos. It also got me thinking about how to navigate a small ensemble within a large ensemble. She makes all this space and freedom for each personality. I think she does that beautifully, without letting go of the overarching sound of the orchestra.

Emerson String Quartet
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8
Deutsche Grammophon, 1999

We go a little bit left field here. For the last year, year and a half, I've been desperate to get into writing for strings. So as soon as lockdown started I thought, I've got no excuse not to get on with this now. The first thing I did was to get seriously studying some scores and I found a deep love of Shostakovich's writing. My project for April [2020] was to write a string quartet—and the first rehearsal is happening next week [late September 2020]. There's a string quartet in Hastings who I'm working with. Shostakovich fascinates me because of his way of creating interplay between the instruments, and movement between luscious lines that sort of tip themselves on their heads at points. It's kind of unpredictable. And there's this really great, driving rhythmic element, which is very important to me as a jazz musician.

Eric Whitacre
The Sacred Veil
Signum, 2020

The Sacred Veil deals with sickness so it's very important at the moment. Eric Whitacre is good friends with the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, whose wife died of cancer some years ago. After a few years of grieving he wrote a poem about this experience and Eric Whitacre set that poem to music. It's for an acapella choir with a little bit of piano and cello at various places. It's incredibly moving and incredibly beautiful and it makes me think about why we create art. There's something so important about humanity in why we do what we do and how it connects us as people. And I thought, that's such an important part of my development, that's what I want to do as musician and as a composer—to feel something and offer something to other people as well.

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