Josephine Davies: Trane of Thought

Selwyn Harris
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Like her hero John Coltrane, award-winning saxophonist and Satori leader Josephine Davies digs deep into Eastern spirituality to find improvisatory freedom. She tells Selwyn Harris about the life-changing epiphany of hearing A Love Supreme for the first time, the importance of meditation and yoga, and her band’s new album

Josephine Davies (photo: Monika S Jakubowska)
Josephine Davies (photo: Monika S Jakubowska)

The idea of clearing out most of the garbage we have in our heads in order to find a space to play in the moment is something jazz musicians have been putting into practice especially since the 1960s as horizons expanded towards freer forms of improvisation and Eastern spirituality.

Josephine Davies, winner of last year’s Parliamentary Jazz ‘Instrumentalist’ Of The Year Award, has long taken an active interest in the workings of the mind having studied psychotherapy as high as doctorate level in her early thirties. It was not long after that the idea of letting go of cluttered thought processes to focus on the present began to resonate for her in a musical sense.

In 2016 she formed a sax-bass-drums trio and named it Satori, a Japanese Buddhist word meaning a moment of awakening or enlightenment. The ancient Indian practice of Yoga becomes the central source of inspiration for Satori’s third (and second ‘live’) album How Can we Wake? recorded mainly at the Oxford in Kentish Town. For most Westerners, Yoga is a series of stretching physical exercises with many health and fitness benefits. On the new recording, the saxophonist-composer digs deeper into its earliest meditative roots.

Satori L-R: James Maddren, Josephine Davies and Dave Whitford

“It was inspired by this book I was reading called The Wisdom of Yoga which is written by an American writer Stephen Cope,” she tells me on a Zoom video call from her mother’s home in Hastings. “He is trying to get to grips with the writings of Patanjali who’s an ancient Indian sage. It completely transformed my life reading this book and understanding how my own patterns of thinking, feelings and behaviour just kept on getting really confused and started to see that I was able to have much more influence than I thought on my moods. That was the beginning of this thinking of writing a whole album about the different states that I go through and witnessing how those feel. All of the pieces of music turned out so different and it’s almost like it happened alongside the way I was feeling about them, that they just grew as I had of all these different states of beings. So I think it was just the more we played together as a trio, the more these pieces developed into this long suite of events and experiences.”

Satori features the bassist Dave Whitford and drummer James Maddren, both in-demand British jazz musicians of idiomatic flexibility and sonic sensitivity. The trio has a minimalist approach. Creating a sense of space and spontaneous melodic development are paramount while the sparse sax-bass-drums setup allows for more harmonic freedom. Traditional jazz ensemble roles are semi-observed with Whitford’s bass imaginatively anchoring a free-flowing dialogue between sax and drums. With its incantational tone and modal ambience, How Can We Wake? just released on Whirlwind Recordings, returns in some ways to the scene of Davies’ first and most awe-struck encounter with jazz which occurred while studying classical flute at Guildhall conservatoire. Hearing A Love Supreme for the first time was a revelation, as it was for many that came before her, and in no time she had switched over to the jazz course. Coltrane’s most iconic recording and other mid-60s classics such as Crescent and ‘Alabama’ have, she says, left a lasting impression on her.

We went out running on the cliffs every day and there was nothing on the horizon, in the sea and nothing in the air, and it felt like the wildlife went nuts and there were bees everywhere and it was this spiritual time of real positivity, a sense of materialism just stopped, nothing happening

“It’s interesting isn’t it, because obviously at age 18 I heard something that had a huge impact on me and really spoke to me personally,” she says. “Then I spent many years trying to learn jazz properly and be a good student and be able to play my II-V-Is in all keys and I thought it was really important to play bebop and things like that. But it never gelled and I think I’ve just struggled with the concept of jazz for years and years until I started to realise that what had spoken to me about A Love Supreme and John Coltrane was the individuality and his personal, unique voice. I gradually realised it’s not about playing jazz, it’s about expressing myself on the tenor saxophone and that was why I loved John Coltrane so much because he was a master of that self-expression and was so authentic and innovative and didn’t care what people thought. That Live in Olympia 1960 concert with Miles Davis where he’s for ages doing these harmonics and you can hear people in the audience booing because it goes on for so long and it’s so uniquely bonkers but he’s experimenting and finding his voice. That’s what’s important to him.

“So I think finally I’ve got to the point where I have got back to that original experience of why do jazz? Or for me now it’s not jazz because I find that term quite complicated in a way and quite confusing to people. For me it’s improvised music and that’s what I think I always wanted to do: to be spontaneous, to rid of structure, goals, to be purely present in the moment and the music within that moment.”

The new recording’s connection with A Love Supreme runs deeper with its focus on spirituality and movements in the form of a suite with titles such as ‘Ananda: bliss’ and ‘Klesha: affliction’. But hers is more an exploration along a pathway of inner development as opposed to Coltrane’s blissful surrender to the divine.

“It’s different moods with the idea that all of them are a separate practice,” she says. “So there isn’t really a sense of a goal that you get to the end and there is enlightenment. But interestingly when we did it ‘live’, at the end of the gig we decided to do the first piece again which is called ‘Bliss’ and it was completely different and I thought that would be a really nice way to wrap up the album. It’s about the idea of letting go as an ongoing practice or goal. As long as I keep reminding myself of that then that is the goal: just acknowledging that there is no goal. It’s a bit paradoxical. And I suppose it really is reflected in the music as we learn to let go further and further into this group improvisation interaction without needing to have a sense that we’re going anywhere in particular, although there’s a vague sense that we’ll start this tune here and we’ll morph into that tune there. So there’s a definite sense of how the pieces fit together and a definite order of how that works musically and emotionally but it’s difficult to define it.”

Staying in the moment as a musical endeavour comes with its own challenges of negotiating shifts in musical structure if a piece is to evolve a narrative. How do you stop cognitive processes getting in the way when deciding to change the meter of a piece for example?

“I think there’s that really interesting, subtle balance possibly between left brain and right brain, if that’s how we want to think about it,” she says. “The cognitive understanding, the awareness of where we are in a structure while also being in the flow of it and I think this is something that Keith Jarrett does incredibly so there’s always that sense of overarching structure especially if he’s playing on a standard, while moving forward in terms of what each note means and what each phrase means and each whole solo and piece means. So there are all these macro and microcosms. For me it’s definitely still a work in progress. It’s very much linked with meditation or anything in life where you feel yourself in the flow and then all of a sudden you come to an awareness of that flow and you break. I think it’s a really interesting question.”

The former London Jazz Orchestra multi-reeds player’s diverse interests and skill-set demonstrate she’s by no means a one-trick pony. Davies recently led a 17-piece jazz orchestra debuting at the Vortex last year and a folky vocal-sax-piano trio Orenda, based on poems about her birthplace in the Shetlands. Nevertheless of all her projects, Satori is the most fulfilling.

“It’s interesting because people still say it’s unusual, but the trio format has been done a lot: way back when, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman and then more recently Julian Arguelles, Rich Perry, JD Allen, The Fly Trio,” she says. “I think there’s something just so satisfying about playing in that line up. My original concept of it came out of when I had a quintet and we did lots of things that were much more compositional, more structured, dense and complicated in terms of harmony and I just wanted to go completely the other way and experience something much more free-flowing and I think this third album we’ve really got into that area much more deeply. But when I hear people trying to do free improvisation where it’s not moving me and it doesn’t seem very deep, sometimes it feels like that because there hasn’t been this immersion in the history of jazz which includes things like understanding harmony. The deeper I understand harmony - and I do use it very much in my other musical realms as a composer certainly - the less I need to dictate it as a free improviser and therefore the more spontaneous I can be. But it certainly comes out of a more sophisticated understanding of music, not just jazz.”

She takes “a less-is-more approach” to composition as well. It takes us from the two-bar motif from the lamenting ‘Nirodha: the possibility of liberation’, and ‘Mudita: joy’, a track that’s “inspired by Ornette Coleman’s Golden Circle Trio, feeling that sense of joy and release, excitement and passion in his playing” through to the free-jazz turbulence of ‘Duhkha’. “One of the translations that I found for Duhkha was ‘pervasive dissatisfaction’,” she says. “It’s the way that as human beings we find it so difficult to be just present with what is. We’re constantly craving something else or not wanting to be in the moment because we’re uncomfortable with it. So always trying desperately to get somewhere else. But actually this is what creates the suffering, the sense of pervasive dissatisfaction and I’m definitely someone that experiences that.”

The title How Can we Wake? is the first line of a poem written for the CD liner notes as a personal reflection on the suite by Davies’ mother, who’s a poet and writer.

“I thought that’s so beautiful and so topical. How can we be more engaged with life? How can we not get lost in the materialist aspects of it? And it’s funny because this was before Covid but seems to be very relevant now. How can we stay awake to what is needed? How can we do good things as a society? How can we help the vulnerable people and how can we maintain this sense of social responsibility? How can we remain engaged with other people and what’s important in life and not just lose ourselves in Netflix, for example.”

Davies is feeling very fortunate having moved to her mum’s flat in the old town of Hastings for lockdown.

“We went out running on the cliffs every day and there was nothing on the horizon, in the sea and nothing in the air, and it felt like the wildlife went nuts and there were bees everywhere and it was this spiritual time of real positivity, a sense of materialism just stopped, nothing happening. Everybody reflecting on themselves and their lives and what’s important and for me at that point what was important was to breathe and experience this time of going back to Hastings which is where I grew up. Also I’ve been incredibly fortunate because my boyfriend Ben Somer’s a bass player and saxophone player. So we’ve started a duo and written loads of pieces together. So for me there has been hugely positive aspects this time while acknowledging for other people it’s been very bad, very scary, there’s been lots of loss and anxiety around income and I certainly have that as well. I’ve been able to have this creative endeavour on an ongoing basis and have a purpose, and that’s been very meaningful.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

Subscribe from only £6.75

Start your journey and discover the very best music from around the world.


View the Current

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Jazzwise magazine.

Find out more