Pianist Sam Leak interviews saxophonist Josephine Davies ahead of Satori’s EFG London Jazz Festival concert, at Greenwich’s ‘Oliver’s Jazz Bar,’ on Sunday 24th November.
SL: Your music is influenced by Japanese philosophy. Can you tell us a bit more about this, perhaps with some specific examples?
JD: I formed this trio just after completing a doctorate in philosophy and psychotherapy and at that time was practising and reading a lot about Japanese Buddhism. The influence was quite conceptual in that I wanted to allow rather than force a musical expression of something. The word ‘Satori’ actually means ‘a moment of presence away from the clutter of thought’ and for me the music is very much entwined with that meditative goal. A more specific example is my tune ‘Wabi-Sabi’ which is a beautiful term that has no immediate translation but is a celebration of imperfection, incompleteness, and transience.
SL: In the preface to ‘Free Play’ Stephen Nachmanovitch recounts a Japanese folk tale about musical mastery. In it a master flautist performs a concert to a town, and it is so incredible that an audience member is prompted to exclaim ‘like a god!’ The flautist agrees to give lessons to a brilliantly talented young musician from the town. He gives him a single, simple tune to learn which he technically masters quickly, and with ease. However every day when he shows up for a lesson the teacher says ‘something lacking,’ and won’t let him move onto a new piece. He gets ever more frustrated and depressed and eventually gives up. He gets down on himself, starts drinking heavily, and runs out of money. He becomes ashamed and goes to live in a hut near the town. One day the townspeople decide to put on a concert and they collectively agree that the concert can’t take place without him. They manage to convince him to play. Playing now with nothing to gain and nothing to lose, he ends up performing the same piece that he’d worked on in those lessons all of those years ago. He finishes the performance and from the audience comes out an exclamation: ‘like a god!’
It’s definitely a little romanticised (and I don’t think you’d pass your PGCE with that teaching approach..), but nonetheless the story says a few things to me. Firstly it is about how ‘trying’ can block you from being in the moment. Secondly it is about playing with a sense of human experience (Charlie Parker, for example, once said ‘Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn’). Does this story speak to you at all?
JD: Absolutely! Yes. It’s been a long journey for me in terms of finding my voice, developing my own concept, and building enough sense of self to be able to express that. For many years I think I was ‘trying’ too hard and ultimately always failing to find the joy and freedom that drew me to jazz in the first place. It was only through leaving music for a few years and doing something different that I was able to return to it, technically less competent but definitely with something to say and more ability to say it.
SL: How do you balance head and heart in your performing? Robin Aspland once said to me that you should be a scientist in the practice room and an artist on stage. Can you tell us a bit about what you practice and how this feeds into your performing?
JD: I’m still working on that question! At the moment I have a routine that’s developing my facility on the horn, but I’ve also got really into singing practice. The saxophone can be a real cheat’s instrument as you don’t have to ‘hear’ the note, you can just press a button, unlike the trumpet or voice, so I hope this will develop my sense of melody and ability to find the most interesting note contextually. In that sense I agree with Robin; it’s very structured practice which comes out in all sorts of unconscious ways in performance.
SL: What do you love the most about playing with ‘Satori’? Is there a band concept?
Yes! The concept has become very much a ‘less is more’ approach compositionally so we don’t have to be tied to anything particular such as key signature, form, even time signature, but there’s always the option to come back to some kind of ‘hook’. I’ve realized that often one of us is laying something down whilst the other two play freely. Part of the concept is also that our roles are loose so anyone can be creating structure or deconstructing at any given moment. James and Dave are amazing to play with in this sense. I think we’ve developed a lot of trust in each other’s playing so we can take risks, let go of the need to get anywhere specific, and find that freedom that’s my musical raison d’être!
SL: Can you tell us about the music that you will be playing on Sunday, at Greenwich’s ‘Olivers Jazz Bar’ for the London Jazz Festival?
JD: We’ll be doing some of the pieces from the last album ‘In the Corners of Clouds’ plus some music we’ve been developing recently for our next album. I’m really excited about recording live again (January 20th at the Oxford Tavern, Kentish town) and there’ll be even more of a Buddhist and free theme happening.
Josephine Davies plays at Olivers Jazz Bar, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, on Sunday 24th November at 5pm. You can buy tickets here: http://bit.ly/LJF-satori