Features/Interviews (PP)

Josephine Davies (Ensō Ensemble…new composition ‘Ascension Suite’, Vortex 21 Oct, St Leonards 29 Oct)

Saxophonist/composer Josephine Davies has a new orchestra, the Ensō Ensemble. They will perform the premiere of her new composition Ascension Suite on 21 October at the Vortex, and then in St Leonards. Interview by Bruce Lindsay.

Josephine Davies. Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Josephine Davies is a relative latecomer to jazz, changing to the jazz course during her classical studies at the Guildhall after hearing John Coltrane, but the move has reaped rewards including the 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Award for Instrumentalist of the Year.

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Her latest project, the 17-piece Ensō Ensemble, debuts in October with the premiere of her latest work, Ascension Suite. Davies recently spoke about the genesis of the group and the composition, explaining the varied influences that brought them to fruition.

Where does the name come from? “I think of an overall project and within that the name is important. Calling it a ‘big band’ gives the wrong expectation: my approach is steeped as much in the classical as the jazz tradition. I thought about calling it the Josephine Davies Orchestra but the Ensō Ensemble seems to trip off the tongue more readily and it follows on from my Satori project and my interest in Japanese Buddhism, which is where the word ‘satori’ comes from. My sister, Freya Coates, designed the artwork for my previous album: it was an Ensō Circle, which is drawn as a meditative practice and celebrates the beauty of incompletion and imperfection, and it really spoke to me. So the name stems from all of those things and seems to really fit the project.”

A 17-piece ensemble is a big logistical and financial challenge, so why take on something so big? “Satori was very much about me as a saxophonist whereas the Ensō Ensemble is linked to my development as a composer. Yes, the logistics are daunting but it’s really an outlet for my bigger ideas.” Davies spent ten years in the London Jazz Orchestra, taking over from Tim Garland whose predecessor was Stan Sulzmann. Davies calls them “two giants of the saxophone but also incredible composers – so there was an expectation that I would get into writing and that’s where I began to write for large ensembles.”

Davies left the LJO in 2018 and has been writing for large ensembles since then, but 2022 has been a period of continuous writing with the Ensō Ensemble in mind: “This year I thought ‘Come on, there’s nothing stopping me apart from my anxieties, logistical and egotistical!’ I love it so much that it overcomes any potential difficulties.” She views the Ensō Ensemble as a long-term project and selected its members for two main reasons: “The soloistic ability and personal sound of each of them really speaks to me, but there’s also something slightly wider in terms of creativity, sensitivity. I’ve just finished a passage for unison flugelhorns, for Tom Walsh, Reuben Fowler, Nick Smart, and Robbie Robson, who I think will be such a beautiful, non-egotistical, section that will really bring the music to life. I think about how the players approach music in general, which inspires my writing and how I leave space: for example, the fourth part of the suite consists of weird, dissonant, chords underneath Jason Yarde’s free improvisation. He’s such an incredible free improviser so it’s really a case of less is more when I write that section as I try to imagine what Jason will do over the top.” Davies’s enthusiasm for every member of the ensemble is obvious: “I wish I could mention everyone, because they are all so important and inspiring.”

Speaking about influences on the writing of Ascension Suite, Davies mentioned the Celtic Wheel of the Year as one and I suggested that environmental issues may be another. However, Davies has a different perspective on this: “It’s so many-layered. But what sprang to mind when you suggested this is that the Celtic Wheel and environmental issues aren’t the same and may even be diametrically opposed. What I mean is that I feel that when people talk about ‘environmental issues’ their language reflects an idea of a distance between humans and the land, which is false. There are huge problems to be fixed but it’s not the environment that has issues, its corporate capitalism. The Celtic Wheel is really a celebration of who we are in relation to the Earth, Gaia. Its idea is to be in harmony with nature, to live in closeness with Her with a capital ‘H’. That’s what inspired the suite, it’s a celebratory piece.”

Many jazz fans will note the title of the suite and sense a connection to Coltrane, who released his Ascension album in 1966. “It’s a tricky one. Coltrane remains a huge inspiration, not just musically. I think he was a seeker, someone with huge capacity for humanity. ‘Ascension,’ for me, comes out of people and groups who teach the way of the heart, as well as the mind, and talk about the ascension of humans together with the planet. This won’t resonate with everyone, nor does it need to. I wouldn’t want to make connections where none exist and, of course, Coltrane was private about these aspects of himself, but they spring forth so clearly in his music.”

The Ensō Ensemble’s debut concerts will centre on Ascension Suite, but the first half will feature a set of short pieces written by Davies, plus one by pianist Frank Harrison, “The Man Who Cycled from India for Love,” which Davies describes as “a beautiful tune.” At the St Leonards-on-Sea concert, Liane Carroll will make a guest appearance to sing Davies’s “Smuggler’s Song,” written when she moved to Hastings in 2020. Davies grew up near the sea and describes the song as “a love song to the sea and to homecoming. I can’t wait to hear Liane sing it. I think it will be special.”

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Orchestra members
Josephine Davies – conductor, composer, arranger, tenor saxophone
Jason Yarde – alto saxophone
Rachael Cohen – alto saxophone
Helena Kay – tenor saxophone 21.10
Alec Harper – tenor saxophone 29.10
Adam Bishop – tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet
Tamar Osborn – baritone saxophone/bass clarinet
Tom Walsh – trumpet/flugelhorn
Reuben Fowler – trumpet/flugelhorn
Nick Smart – trumpet/flugelhorn
Robbie Robson – trumpet/flugelhorn
Anna Drysdale – horn
Olli Martin – trombone
Tom White – trombone 21.10
Maddie Dowdeswell – trombone 29.10
Sarah Williams – bass trombone
Alcyona Mick – piano 21.10
Robert Mitchell – piano 29.10
Dave Whitford – double bass
Shane Forbes – drums
Liane Carroll – special guest vocalist 29.10

Josephine Davies website

The Ensō Ensemble plays The Vortex in London on 21 October – BOOKING LINK and The Kino in St Leonards-on-Sea on 29 October – BOOKINGS.

Davies plans to record Ascension Suite with the Ensō Ensemble in early 2023 and is currently finalising the details.

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