Photo credit: Tor Hills
Shetlands-born saxophonist, composer and bandleader Josephine Davies has received acclaim for her work with the trio she leads, Satori. The Downbeat review referred to her ‘irrepressible tunefulness’. In London she is also known as a regular member of the London Jazz Orchestra. She is about to take the lead on a bigger scale… and launch her own big band. It is a moment which we want to look forward to, and to celebrate, on International Women’s Day. Interview by Sebastian:
LondonJazz News: 14 April is going to be quite a big day for you…
Josephine Davies: Yes! I’m very excited about it – I’ve been talking about putting together my own jazz orchestra for about three years now, so I finally challenged myself by booking a date and therefore having to set aside my anxieties. It’s been a great motivator to get writing every day.
LJN: Tell us about the main work which will have its premiere.
JD: Well actually there are four pieces that will be premiered, but one of them was written because the concert was provisionally planned for around 8th March which is International Women’s Day and I wanted to do something to reflect that. There were a number of poems I thought about setting to music but then I decided I wanted spoken word rather than melody over the top of the band. Then I thought that rather than use a single poem I’d take lines from lots of different places – some poems, but also other literature and essays by women. The title itself – ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’ – I borrowed from an Emily Brontë poem as I wanted to pay homage to the courage of women over the centuries who have made their voices heard in the face of belittlement, indifference, or outright silencing. Although the poem is about religious faith, I also choose to interpret it in terms of faith in the human spirit, without which there would be no progress at all.
LJN: And the work Eos which you’ll be playing also has a special place for you?
JD: This was the first composition I wrote specifically for jazz orchestra as opposed to arranging a pre-existing work. I think it shows a development in my writing, and utilizes the instruments in a different way. As I was writing the introduction I experienced this amazing feeling of moving towards something bright and light so I called it ‘Eos’ who is the Greek Goddess of the dawn.
LJN: Going through the names of the people in the band (list below) one was completely new to me, Tamar Osborn. Who is she? Where do you know her from?
JD: She is a London-based multi-instrumentalist and composer who leads a band called ‘Collocutor’ that I play in. I guess it would be described as world music rather than jazz (though neither of these labels are particular helpful!), so that may be why you haven’t come across her. She specializes in baritone sax and bass clarinet so is perfect for the chair in my big band as the writing is evenly split between the two instruments.
LJN: You’ve been making waves with the Satori Trio. This feels like the opposite from that spaciousness…
JD: Ha ha – yes, in some ways! But I’m really striving to leave space in my writing for this project too. I love big bands that have a small group feeling, especially for extended improvised sections so that the soloist has an opportunity to express something – Thad Jones was particularly good at that. It’s definitely a work in progress, but I’ve learnt a lot about the minimalist technique from writing for Satori – I’m better now at trusting the process of allowing the musicians’ sounds to fill the space rather than dictating it (or indeed cluttering it up) with composition. But it is of course a very different use of notes and space – I’m still learning.
LJN: It says in your biography you’re from Shetland – what’s your story? Where and when did the music take hold?
JD: The story is that my Grandparents moved to Shetland from England to build a croft in the 70s, and just after my parents got married they went up to help build and also fell in love with the islands. But a few years after having children they decided to move back down south so I grew up mainly in Norfolk and Sussex. I still feel a strong connection though, there’s something about the light that far North that is completely different and doesn’t let go of you. I have family in Aberdeenshire who are amazing folk musicians, and funnily enough the two genres have much in common. Apparently, Dizzy Gillespie and Bobby Wellins had an interesting disagreement about which elements of a piece of music were African and which were Scottish!
LJN: What are your take on International Women’s Day and feminism in general?
JD: I’m reluctant to answer this definitively as my own views are ever in flux, but I’d say that I’m first and foremost a humanist. The word feminist is problematic as it means different things to different people, and although the movement in its myriad waves has been a necessary social phenomenon, it has also in some of its manifestations been exclusive rather than inclusive resulting in a continuation of the problem of defining the female – it’s just been done by women themselves rather than men. We are not a homogenous group and there are more differences between us than there are similarities. So perhaps I am the kind of feminist who hopes for a world in which there can be freedom of expression without fear of judgement and condemnation, nor the need for extreme polarization of the sexes and categorization of such abstract phenomena as femininity and masculinity.
LJN: Are things improving for women in jazz?
JD: Jazz is one component of a wider society and though many things in our culture demonstrate improvements for women there are still deeply rooted ways of thinking that all sexes and genders have to contend with (I’m a great believer in feminism not being a ‘women’s issue’ but something that we all need). The tacit assumptions we have can often be the most insidious too, for example the way it seems perfectly appropriate to praise female children for their prettiness and male children for their strength. This sounds like a small thing, but is simply an aspect of a larger problem wherein women are historically the object to the male subject. The imbalance of male/female jazz musicians is a reflection of this kind of unconscious bias and I imagine will become less of a problem as society becomes more gender fluid, but I believe we should all take personal responsibility for acknowledging when and how we are being part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
LJN: Make a wish for International Women’s Day.
JD: I wish for respect, freedom, safety and joy for all women around the world, not just today but until ‘women’s day’ becomes a quaint and obsolete phenomenon.
Josephine Davies Jazz Orchestra:
Voice: Fini Bearman
Woodwinds: Sam Bullard, Mike Chillingworth, James Allsopp, George Crowley, Tamar Osborn
Trumpets: James Copus, Barney Lowe, Steve Fishwick, Robbie Robson
French Horn: Jim Rattigan
Trombones: Kieran Stickle-Mcleod, Maddie Dowdeswell, Sarah Williams
Piano: Tom Cawley
Bass: Calum Gourlay
Drums: Will Glaser