Jazz interview with British Jazz saxophonist, composer & Band leader Josephine Davies. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Josephine Davies: – I’m originally from the Shetland Islands but we moved south when I was very young, so I grew up in Sussex where there was an excellent county music department. My family all played instruments and we always had a piano in the house so I started on that and then took up flute when I was 12.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophone? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophone?
JD: – It was actually my older brother who said I should take up the saxophone because it’s a ‘cool’ instrument – and I listened! However, I didn’t discover jazz until relatively late in life, when I was actually at Music College studying on the classical course. By the time I swapped to the jazz course they were studying Kenny Wheeler and non-functional harmony, so my education had some holes I needed to fill post-college. But then jazz education itself is a relatively new phenomenon and it’s not necessary to study formally in order to develop your playing – the best lessons I’ve had have been in the last few months from Julian Arguelles and Ian Ballamy because now I know what I want to ask and what I need to work on.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JD: – My first influence was John Coltrane and when I heard ‘Love Supreme’ I immediately switched from alto to tenor. However, I feel like I’m only just beginning to find my sound – for many years I played with straight ahead and hard bop musicians but never felt comfortable. I’m now moving towards a much freer, more avant-garde sound which suits me a lot better!
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JD: – I’ve just discovered the app ‘Drum Genius’ which I love. I used to practise with a metronome but it’s so much nicer playing with drums, even though it’s obviously not interactive. I practise in various time signatures, tempos and keys in order to develop fluency and flexibility, and I try and always do it in a creative way so that practice and performance flow into each other (and also because I get bored quickly!)
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
JD: – It depends on the ensemble – with Satori there is less harmonic pattern because I’m going for a more open approach. But my other projects use piano so there’s instantly more harmonic density and choice as well as possibilities for tension and release through consonance as the pole of dissonance, so I probably play them off one another more so than in the trio.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
JD: – Should I be preventing such a thing? Isn’t every artistic endeavour a conscious and unconscious amalgamation of everything that has come before plus a peppering of individuality? What is colour by nature if not disparate?
JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <Josephine Davies’ Satori – In the Corners of Clouds>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
JD: – I love the interaction between the three of us and how joyful some of it sounds. We did nine tunes in one day and used primarily first takes – although they’re not always ‘perfect’ there’s definitely an energy that comes across. I’m now working on my jazz orchestra compositions for my debut concert next year as well as promoting my other trio ‘Orenda’ which is an integration of folk, jazz, poetry and spoken word.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
JD: – Interesting question. For me the crucial aspects of any art form are imagination and authenticity – if these are present then I can always engage on some level even if I’m not immediately drawn towards it. However, I’m not sure that intellect and soul can be polarized so cleanly as we don’t have clear definitions for either and they’re both hugely subjective. All I know is that if there is musical cleverness without the elusive other qualities then I might at first be interested in the rhythmic or harmonic logic but ultimately I will be unmoved and therefore more likely bored.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
JD: – Why, what do they want?? I agree there’s a two-way relationship but I think I get more affected when the audience doesn’t respond to me than the other way round. Some audiences immediately create an amazing atmosphere that inspires me to give more, and some are very timid or maybe even indifferent – it’s difficult to judge! It also depends on the venue and the acoustics and lots of other less tangible things but I love it when we respond to each other – it’s when the magic of live performance happens.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
JD: – Another project I did recently was a trio set at Ronnie Scott’s in London playing the music from Joe Henderson’s ‘State of the tenor’ album. I really immersed myself in Henderson’s playing for a couple of months which was hugely inspiring – he has the most amazing energy and creativity in everything he plays.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JD: – The way I see it is that the standards repertoire is timeless in the same way much of the classical repertoire is. Standards are a way of accessing functional harmony and there are countless beautiful melodies that never get old. But also we need to ask why young people ever got interested in jazz. It’s cultural and it’s about much more than the age of the music – it’s about the opportunity for expression, for irreverence, for creative rather than destructive anarchy. Jazz isn’t ‘pop’ music but in a way that should be celebrated because much of popular music is more about image than artistic expression. Young people will always find jazz. The more important question in the UK is how can we stop it being primarily the pursuit of white middle-class males?
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JD: – How long have I got? Personally, I’m very interested in Japanese and Indian philosophy and am striving to live and play as freely as I can and to the fullest expression. In that respect, music, spirit and life are all parts of the same thing – a quest for freedom from the strictures of the egoic mind.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
JD: – Less apathy. Particularly in the UK there is a culture that neglects the importance of live performance. I believe that experiencing music in groups is a fundamental aspect of human existence and the more we stay in our homes watching TV (even good TV), the less alive we become as a species. I want people to wake up, take risks, be spontaneous and come together to enjoy something. I suppose this could also be a definition of good jazz!
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JD: – I’m currently obsessed with Tony Malaby. And other players who channel that kind of joyous abandon– Keith Jarrett, Julian Arguelles, Rich Perry, Dewey Redman, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Maria Schneider, Bill Frisell… It comes back to imagination and authenticity doesn’t it?
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
JD: – I could answer that politically and say that my message is to promote female fearlessness and courage; I believe that one of the fundamental reasons jazz is a male dominated art form is that from infancy girls are taught timidity and boys are taught to take risks – and good jazz is all about taking risks. But I could also answer personally and say that although I don’t consciously choose to bring a message, by doing what I do I am abstractly stating a belief in freedom of individual expression, of non-conformity, of rebellion against the mediocrity of manufactured music, and of tradition for the sake of tradition. Having said that, perhaps the political and personal are not so disparate!
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JD: – Despite (or perhaps due to) the endless possible answers I could give, I have to turn to my own experience and admit that I would really want to go back to my adolescence and coach myself out of being so fearful of the opinions of others. Aaron Copland hypothesised that self-consciousness is the antithesis of creativity, and had I not been so wrapped up in avoiding judgement I would have been free to appreciate the jazz ‘greats’ from a much earlier age.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
JD: – What’s the weirdest answer you’ve ever had in one of these interviews and from whom?
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers.
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
JD: – Daily practice not just of music but also mindset – I need to constantly remind myself what really matters and not get bogged down in negativities such as envy or regret as these are toxic to creative endeavour.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan