Photo credit: Rob Blackham
Saxophonist and composer JOSEPHINE DAVIES has a new album out on Whirlwind Recordings. It’s a trio disc recorded live with Dave Whitford on bass and Paul Clarvis on drums. Josephine spoke to LondonJazz News Editor-at-Large Peter Bacon.
LondonJazz News: Playing saxophone with just bass and drums can be both intimidating and liberating. Is it like that for you?
Josephine Davies: It’s amazing how much the absence of a chordal instrument changes the overall sound. Not just harmonically, but in terms of the texture and the amount of space that’s freed up. I think this is why it can be both liberating and intimidating; it creates endless possibilities for creativity, but can also influence me to overplay. What I like most are the moments when that space feels like an opportunity to go in any direction we choose. Of course there are also moments when I might be stuck for ideas, or doubting my decisions, and then there’s nowhere to hide – there can be a sense of responsibility that’s daunting when inspiration is particularly elusive.
LJN: Do you have favourite saxophone/bass/drums trios from the past that have inspired – or influenced – this project?
JD: I love those live recordings by Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins, and the more recent trios of Rich Perry and Julian Argüelles. There’s this amazing sense of freedom and extended improvisation, with the musicians constantly interacting to co-create the sound. There’s also a sense of timelessness about those groups, perhaps due to the strength and character of the individual musicians. That’s something I would definitely like to recreate, so yes I’m hugely influenced by those recordings, but also hope that Satori has its own sound, particularly as Paul and Dave each have a very distinctive style.
LJN: How does the way you approach your improvising differ in this trio format from having solo space within, say, the Pete Hurt or London Jazz orchestras? How does the one feed the other?
JD: In other projects, particularly jazz orchestras, there is usually a set space for improvised solos, whereas with Satori, everything is an opportunity for some kind of improv, even if that’s just messing around with (or forgetting) the melody, or playing something behind Dave or Paul. With the trio there’s a much less structured format for who solos when – which often creates some hesitance in audience applause! Also, in terms of solo structure, climax, tension and release, there are far fewer of us in the trio to create this so we each have greater responsibility.
Good big-band writing incorporates this into the overall piece, and I particularly love playing in Pete Hurt’s orchestra because he does this brilliantly. The ballad we recorded for his album A New Start is a good example where the backing behind the solo builds through the entry of a sparse unison line which spreads with the addition of more instruments and eventually becomes a trumpet countermelody to the improvised solo, then fades back down to just rhythm section towards the end. The shape of my solo is therefore already given so I have less responsibility within that area of decision making.
That piece is also a harmonic mine-field so throughout my solo I am utilising chord-scale relationships much more closely than I would do within the trio where the harmony itself is more open to interpretation.
LJN: Do your compositions come from your own improvising, or are they very separate ways of working for you?
JD: That’s an interesting question, and I’m constantly striving to understand the nature of composition. In the past they have been quite separate processes, but the more comfortable I become leaving space and taking time within improvisation, the more similar the two feel. I’d say that writing for the trio has more links with my own improvising because obviously I’m writing for myself as a saxophonist and each piece is a vehicle for improv. Less so when writing for big-band because I’m thinking completely differently in terms of orchestration, texture, structure etc. I never use the saxophone to write for big band, but sometimes when I’m practising I might get a ‘saxophonic’ idea that I’ll jot down to be further formed for the trio.
LJN: Where do the titles of the pieces come from?
JD: I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with naming tunes. It’s a strange tradition in instrumental jazz really, given that without lyrics, titles are often wholly subjective, meaning that the listener might like an explanation, which can get a bit repetitive on multiple gigs. But equally I’m not attracted to the idea of using the more classical tradition of numbering rather than naming compositions as that doesn’t really speak to the process either.
I quite like titles that are descriptive of the piece, like Snakes or Something Small, as they speak for themselves. The Tempest Prognosticator is actually a 19th century invention by George Merryweather using the movement of leeches to predict storms – I love the name, and it seemed fitting for this more bombastic piece, but I’m not always inclined to communicate this information on gigs!
LJN: How much of Satori was pre-planned and how much emerged in performance?
JD: I was recently listening to a recording of our first gig as a trio, a couple of months before the live album recording, and its interesting to hear how differently we played the pieces. The fact that they’re so open, and the compositions themselves are fairly sparse means that the pre-planning stage is minimal. We rehearse so that we get to know the outline and general idea, and then leave it to the performance to see where we go with it.
Something Small for example, as the title suggests, is a very simple 12-bar melody based around three key centres, so performance itself is the main component; how we structure or ‘narrate’ it is all done in situ and therefore sounds completely different each time we play it. The simplicity of that kind of composition works because everyone is listening and organically creating the piece as we play – I love the sense of freedom this gives which feels different from soloing on a set form.
Another spontaneous aspect is that I like starting tunes on my own without counting them in, but I can be a bit mercurial in my tempo choices and this really affects the overall feel of each performance. ‘Snakes’ from the live recording starts in this crazily slow tempo that’s a challenge to maintain because it becomes so energetic, but I love the way this piece progressed on the night.
|Satori: Dave Whitford, Josephine Davies and Paul Clarvis|
LJN: Why Paul Clarvis?
JD: Paul’s playing is unique – he’s immersed himself in so many different styles of music, and he has phenomenal time and feel. He brings a real joy and playfulness to the music, and he plays without fear, he just really wants to get stuck in there and create something all the time.
LJN: And why Dave Whitford?
JD: I’ve played with Dave for years, in fact he played on my final recital at Guildhall all those years ago! He’s got such a fantastic sound, and he’s unafraid to play the bass like a bass, but he’s equally comfortable when I give him more of a ‘horn line’ to play in unison with me. He’s got amazing technique, but this doesn’t get in the way when simplicity is called for.
I love writing for this trio because Paul and Dave pick up the vaguest of ideas and immediately make it sound good, and we have a lot of fun with it; the emphasis seems to be on creating a band sound, and expressing ourselves both individually and collectively.
LJN: Tell us about the Buddhist references in this project’s title…
JD: I’d been trying to find a band name since we formed the trio and nothing really resonated until I came across this word in a book I was reading. It felt particularly fitting because although ‘Satori’ describes an experience of spontaneous awakening, it is understood to arise only after a period of more concentrated preparation or focus. I find this analogous to the process of improvisation where so much conscious practice and hard graft occurs in order to make possible the moments of freedom and expression within performance.
It’s gratifying when audience members comment on how easy or enjoyable it looks for us on stage because I know how much difficulty and frustration have preceded that performance – for me at least. So the moment of effortlessness in music, or awakening in meditation, doesn’t spring out of thin air – the magic of inspiration only becomes possible within the constraints of prior and ongoing effort, which I believe is as it should be.