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Josephine Davies

Satori ; How Can We Wake?

by Ian Mann

November 02, 2020


Confirms Satori as one of the most consistently creative trios around, drawing on the inspirations of the past to create something of the moment, with a genuine contemporary relevance and resonance.

Josephine Davies, Satori

“How Can We Wake?”

(Whirlwind Recordings, WR4764)

Josephine Davies – tenor & soprano saxophones, Dave Whitford – double bass, James Maddren – drums

“How Can We Wake?” is the third album release from saxophonist and composer Josephine Davies’ acclaimed Satori trio. It follows “Satori” (2017) and “In the Corners of Clouds” (2018), both of which also appeared on the Whirlwind imprint, and both of which are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann web pages.

Originally from the Shetland Isles, brought up in Hastings, but now based in London Davies was a relative late comer to the jazz ranks, switching from the classical to the jazz course after hearing the music of John Coltrane, most notably “A Love Supreme”. She’s been an important part of the UK jazz scene for a number of years, despite taking time out to complete a doctorate in psychotherapy.

Prior to Satori Davies led the JD5, a quintet featuring Whitford on bass plus trumpeter Robbie Robson, keyboard player Ross Stanley and drummer Nick Smalley. Focussing on Davies’ original writing this line up recorded two enjoyable albums, “Elation” and “Perspective”.

She has also worked with small groups led by pianist Steve Melling, bassist Dominic Howles and multi-instrumentalist Adam Glasser and with the band Collocutor, led by saxophonist/flautist Tamar Osborn. 

Her large ensemble engagements have included flautist Gareth Lockrane’s Big Band,  bassist Calum Gourlay’s Big Band, the London Jazz Orchestra, and, perhaps most significantly, the Pete Hurt Jazz Orchestra with whom she has also recorded, appearing on the 2016 release “A New Start”.

Davies has recently formed her own large ensemble, the Josephine Davies Jazz Orchestra, which made its début at London’s Vortex Jazz Club in April 2019. Inspired by the music of Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza the focus here is very much on melody, harmony, colour and texture.

Her other projects include the all female folk-jazz trio Orenda, alongside vocalist Brigitte Beraha and pianist Alcyona Mick, which explores the traditional music of a number of European countries and blends them with jazz and classical elements. Orenda also forms part of the multi-media Mythical Islands Project, which also involves poet Gwendoline Coates, artist Fenya Sharkey and photographer Clive Jarman.

During the 2020 lockdown Davies and her partner, bassist/ saxophonist Ben Somers, have been writing and recording together with the intention of releasing an album under the duo name Silver Linings.

But it’s Satori that remains Davies’ most important creative outlet, with the success achieved by the trio leading to her receiving the Award for ‘Best Instrumentalist’ at the 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

Satori was first conceived when Davies was seeking to move away from the more structured and complex music of her quintet in order to explore something more improvisatory and free flowing.

In addition to Coltrane the music of Satori is also influenced by the classic saxophone trios of Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and Ornette Coleman plus more contemporary examples of the format, such as the trios led by Julian Arguelles, Rich Perry and JD Allen, plus the co-operative Fly Trio (Mark Turner, tenor sax, Larry Grenadier, bass, Jeff Ballard, drums).

Satori takes its name from a Buddhist word meaning “a moment of presence and inner spaciousness, away from the clutter of thought”. The inside cover of this latest album includes a painting of the Zen Buddhist ‘Enso’ symbol by Davies’s sister Freya Coates. The symbol is traditionally created with a single brush stroke and expresses “a meditative process of letting go of the mind and allowing the body to create. It celebrates the beauty of incompletion and imperfection, movement and stillness”.

The front cover features a painting by vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Fini Bearman,, who also provided the artwork for the two previous Satori albums.

This latest album represents a kind of ‘suite’, the ten movements inspired by the writings of the Indian sage Patanjali. The word ‘suite’ may suggest something structured and formal, but the music of “How Can We Wake?” is almost the diametric opposite of this. The ‘movements’ were conceived as “sets of melodic and rhythmic parameters for the trio to explore in the heat of the present moment”.

Davies has previously explained that the Satori name is analogous with improvisation and continues;
“What happens between us in the trio is more and more based on group collaborative improvisation. The tunes are more wanting to reflect different sets of being rather than specific set musical ideas. Dave and James are such incredibly creative musicians, and that’s taught me as composer that less can be more, they’ve both got such strong individual sounds. James has so many different voices and creates a constant movement around me as I play, and Dave has an amazing, deep grounded bass sound. They are magical!”

I have been fortunate enough to witness the trio’s collective creativity at close quarters when they performed at the 2018 Brecon Jazz Festival, just prior to the release of the “In the Corners of Clouds” album. The gig took place in St. Mary’s Church, which formed a perfect setting for the group’s intimate but highly vibrant music. I thought they were terrific, and my review of that performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;

Indeed the crucible of the live environment seems to be the optimum location for Satori’s music. The trio’s eponymous début (which featured Maddren’s predecessor Paul Clarvis) was recorded at the suitably intimate Iklectik Art Lab venue in Waterloo, London.

The second album was recorded during the course of a single day in a kind of ‘live in the studio’ setting, but this latest offering is again culled from genuine live performances. Fortuitously these recordings were captured just before lockdown. The majority of the album was recorded at The Oxford Tavern in Kentish Town on 20th January 2020, with a further two pieces coming from the following night’s performance at the Total Refreshment Centre in Hackney. As before recording engineer Alex Bonney was behind the desk and the recording combines studio style clarity with the excitement of a live performance.

The title of each ‘movement’ represents one of Patanjali’s definitions of “States of Being”. These encompass both positive and negative moods. “We all swing between these different states” explains Davies, “it’s why I wanted to record live, so all the pieces could relate to each other as we moved from one to the next”.

The opening “Ananda” refers to a state of bliss. “I was feeling very calm and positive, which is quite unusual for me as I can be a bit hectic!” explains Davies. The saxophonist’s tenor meditations convey a suitably calm and spiritual quality as she explores in unhurried fashion accompanied by Whitford’s assured bass punctuation and commentary and the subdued rustle and bustle of Maddren’s drums. A sense of melody prevails throughout, however deeply Davies probes, and the deepness of the collective rapport and the high levels of receptiveness between the individual musicians are apparent from the outset.

The pieces reflecting states of being are interspersed by three “Sutras”, the word translating as “Threads”, which represent scriptures or lessons to define rules or guides for living. Each of the three Sutras here is a solo performance and “Ananda” segues into “Sutra 1”, an atmospheric and skilfully constructed solo drum passage from Maddren, that is rich in terms of colour and variation, and which includes some exquisite cymbal work.

This in turn merges into “Duhkha; pervasive dissatisfaction”, a busier, more energetic, more assertive piece fuelled by Whitford’s insistent bass groove and the busy chatter of Maddren’s drums. Davies’ tenor surfs the groove, before diving beneath the waves to explore more deeply and aggressively, especially as the music becomes more choppy and fragmented, closer in spirit to ‘classic’ free jazz. The storm eventually blows itself out and Davies takes a step back as Whitford and Maddren enter into an extended bass and drum dialogue, with Davies’ tenor eventually snaking its way back in, just prior to to the closing theme statement.

There’s a break in the stream of continuous music with a change of location to the Total Refreshment Centre for the next two pieces.

“Sutra 2” is a solo bass exploration by Whitford, which leads into “Nirodha; the possibility of liberation”. Coltrane’s inspiration is perhaps at its most apparent here, as Davies combines the twin qualities of brooding and yearning in a music that sounds profoundly spiritual, a channelling of the Coltrane spirit. Her tone is initially deep and foreboding, rooted in the tenor’s lower register, her brooding ruminations shadowed by the similarly deep sonorities of Whitford’s bass. Maddren provides subtle commentary, his astute drum and cymbal work mirroring the mood of the piece, which gradually becomes more assertive and positive as it progresses, before gently fading away once more.

Back at The Oxford “Mudita; joy” takes its inspiration from Ornette Coleman’s “Golden Circle Trio”,  featuring bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett.  “I love that rawness and freedom” explains Davis, before adding; “it develops into an extended blow with everyone free to take the piece in any direction they want”.
It’s a suitably joyous and free-wheeling interpretation of the Coleman sound, albeit with Davies on tenor. At one point the saxophonist spars with herself in playful fashion, in between bouts of lively trio interaction with Maddren a hyper-active presence behind the kit. There’s also a solo bass episode from the admirable Whitford, followed by an ebullient drum solo from the consistently inventive Maddren. The Kentish Town crowd love it.

“Daya; compassion” sees Davies switching to soprano, with a busy intro featuring serpentine, Middle Eastern style sounds followed by a more reflective passage featuring, longer, keening melody lines. All the while Davies is faithfully shadowed by Whitford’s bass as Maddren takes something of a back set, only emerging to add atmospheric mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers part way through. When bass and drums drop out Davies continues unaccompanied into the playful ululations of “Sutra 3”, this in turn merging into “Klesha; affliction”.

“Klesha”, is introduced by bass and drums, allowing Davies to make the move back to tenor. Despite the sub title there’s still an element of joyousness about a piece designed to reflect a state of “turbulence”, I guess it’s just the sheer energy of the playing as Davies stretches out on tenor above a sprightly groove. The busy interaction between Davies and Maddren is inventive, thrilling and a joy to hear. These exchanges are followed by extended features for both bass and drums, before the trio come together for a final series of variations around a theme that variously recalls Coleman and Julian Arguelles.

The album concludes with a reprise of “Ananda; bliss”, which the trio performed as a spontaneous act at the end of the Oxford gig, possibly as an encore. Significantly the feel is very different to the version of the piece that opens the album, the performance even more relaxed and serene. To Davies this embodies the openness and spontaneity of the music.

The observant among you will have noticed that there is no title track. The album name comes from a poem, “Samadhana; Composure”, written to complement the project by Davies’ mother, Gwendoline Coates. The poem also adorns the album packaging and opens with the line “How Can We Wake?”. The words have a Zen like simplicity that make them a perfect companion to the music.

“How Can We Wake” confirms Satori as one of the most consistently creative trios around, drawing on the inspirations of the past to create something of the moment, with a genuine contemporary relevance and resonance. Davies’ compositional sketches give her trio room to stretch, soar and explore, but without ever descending into cacophony or formlessness. Captured in the frisson of live performance the recording suggests that this sax/bass/drums trio has nowhere near exhausted its creative potential and that there is much more fine music to come from Satori.

In the meantime Davies’ numerous other projects suggest that there is also much other music to come from her. Any eventual recordings will be awaited with much interest. In the meantime we have this latest offering from Satori to enjoy.

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