by Ian Mann
March 30, 2017
A strong statement from Josephine Davies as she takes on the challenge of the saxophone trio format and succeeds brilliantly.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4700)
Saxophonist and composer Josephine Davies is an demand presence on the London jazz scene for both small group and large ensemble work. I’ve reviewed her performing live with pianist Steve Melling’s quintet and on record with bassist Dominic Howles’ septet. Her large ensemble engagements have included flautist Gareth Lockrane’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 studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London and is a former winner of the Perrier Young Jazz Award. She is currently part of the band Collocutor, led by saxophonist/flautist Tamar Osborn and also leads her own quintet, the JD5 featuring trumpeter Robbie Robson, keyboard player Ross Stanley, bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Nick Smalley. JD5 released the album “Perspective” on Trio records in 2010.
To date I’ve only heard Davies playing in relatively mainstream, straight-ahead contexts. However Satori, which appears to be a band name as well as an album title, finds her operating in a much more open situation with a far greater emphasis on improvisation.
“Satori” finds Davies leading a new chordless trio featuring bassist Dave Whitford, also a member of the JD5, and drummer / percussionist Paul Clarvis. Davies’ writing for the group is deliberately sparse and simple and is “based around key centres, rather than prescriptive harmonic sequences”
This leaves plenty of room for improvisation and individual freedom of expression and the music on “Satori” is both fluid and colourful with all three members of the group helping to shape the course of the music. However this isn’t a free improv record per se, there’s still a strong sense of melody throughout “Satori” and the album should prove to be readily accessible to most jazz listeners.
In a recent interview with Peter Bacon for London Jazz News Davies explained her choice of band name thus;
‘Satori’ is word derived from Buddhist philosophy that describes an experience of spontaneous awakening, it is understood to arise only after a period of more concentrated preparation or focus. I find this analogous to the process of improvisation where so much conscious practice and hard graft occurs in order to make possible the moments of freedom and expression within performance”.
She also revealed that her inspirations for this project included the classic saxophone trios of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson plus more contemporary groups operating in the same format including trios led by Rich Perry and the UK’s own Julian Arguelles.
Given the fluid nature of the material and the fact that true to the jazz spirit no piece is going to be performed in the same way twice it is perhaps appropriate that this is a live recording made at two separate performances at the intimate Iklectik Art Lab venue in Waterloo at events organised by the Jazz Nursery organisation. Recording engineer Alex Bonney does a fine job of capturing the sound of the band and Davies’ production ensures that all the nuances and subtleties of the trio’s playing can be clearly heard. One could easily mistake this for a studio recording.
Despite being best known as a tenor sax soloist Davies features on soprano on the beguiling opener “Insomnia”, her horn snaking sinuously around the interlaced bass and drum patterns generated by Whitford and Clarvis. The latter, a classically trained percussionist is one of the most musical drummers around, his playing always inventive and colourful and packed with delightful small details. He and Whitford form a superb team with the bassist operating as the rock of the ensemble and giving Clarvis that vital freedom to explore in full the sonic possibilities offered by the modern drum kit. Clarvis’ dialogue with Davies is a source of delight throughout the album. I wasn’t present at the Iklectik gigs but can imagine the trio being set up with the saxophonist and drummer facing each other, such is the rapport that they have been able to establish.
The nest three pieces were initially conceived as a medley and are presented in this manner.
“Something Small” sees the saxophonist moving to her customary tenor and introducing the theme unaccompanied, subsequently eliciting the responses of Whitford and Clarvis. Davies’ tone on tenor is strong and authoritative, evoking comparisons with Rollins as she once more exchanges ideas with the receptive and restlessly inventive Clarvis.
The piece segues almost seamlessly into “The Tempest Prognosticator”, an enigmatically titled piece named after George Merryweather’s bizarre 19th century invention, a form of ‘leech barometer’ – the mind boggles. The music is a free-wheeling outpouring of energy with the boisterous but fluid grooves generated by Whitford and Clarvis fuelling Davies’ strident tenor proclamations.
Finally “Snakes” begins with more freely structured ruminations before Whitford’s bass motif steers the tune into more obviously written territory as the piece simmers and finally burns with Davies and the trio ratcheting up the tension. Release is finally reached to a ripple of live applause and this is followed by an extended bass solo from Whitford and a more considered passage of trio playing before the close. One senses that this is a piece that could go just about anywhere in live performance.
The title of “Paradoxy” represents an obvious homage to Rollins and the piece has something of the feel of one of his recordings with its buoyant rhythms and garrulous tenor sax soloing. There’s some terrific interaction between Davies and the increasingly busy Clarvis as the music grows in intensity and there are also absorbing and enjoyable individual features for bass and drums.
“Crisp Otter” honours a more recent influence, the American saxophonist and composer Chris Potter and his Underground Band. Davies evokes something of Potter’s style as she extemporises above the contemporary, odd meter rhythms laid down by her colleagues.
“The Yips” brings a joyous South African element to the proceedings as Davies’ soprano skips breezily around Clarvis’ lightly skittering brushed patterns and Whitford’s anchoring bass groove.
There’s also a solo from the excellent Whitford, his robust but melodic playing complemented by the chatter of Clarvis’ brushwork, the drummer subsequently coming to the fore on his own feature. Apparently this piece represented something of a technical challenge but it’s one to which the Iklectik audience responded positively and enthusiastically.
The album concludes with an alternative take on the Rollins tribute “Paradoxy”.
“Satori” represents a strong statement from Josephine Davies as she takes on the challenge of the saxophone trio format and succeeds brilliantly. In this exposed setting her own playing on both tenor and soprano is confident, fluent and imaginative and she’s well supported by a stellar rhythm team who help the leader to bring the best out of a simple, but memorable and well written, set of themes. Davies’ tunes provide a sturdy and accessible framework for the trio’s improvisations and individually and collectively the three musicians rise to the challenge with aplomb.
Davies is hoping to tour with the trio later in the year. On the evidence of this album they should be well worth catching in the live environment.