From Down Beat magazine, the monthly "bible" of jazz, blues, and roots music.May 2016 issue. Article written by Jennifer Odell.
Billie Davies, a Belgium-born drummer whose career path has been as avant-gar- de as her music, had an existential crisis of sorts before she returned to drumming full- time in 2009.
She’d been working in Northern California as an art dealer—one of many hats that have ranged from DJ to gypsy musician to information architecture IT specialist—when it occurred to her she wasn’t sure who she was anymore. Distraught, she picked up the phone and called Serge Vandercam (1924–2005), a Danish visual artist with whom she’d bonded, for advice.
“I just go, ‘Who am I?’” Davies recalled, her voice cracking as if stuck halfway between the onset of laughter or tears.
Vandercam’s reply was terse: “You’re an artist. Get on with it. Stop whining.” She took it in stride.
“ That was such a reinforcement for me,” she explained. “And then a full moon ended up coming and he goes, ‘Come on, Billie. I’ll paint; you play the drums.’”
The collaboration yielded a series of wild visual and aural meditations on matters like nature, wisdom, love and transcendence. But it wasn’t until 2015 that Davies, now 60, put the results out into the world in the form of Hand In Hand In e Hand Of e Moon, an eight- part jazz symphony she recorded in her adopted home of New Orleans last spring.
Full of shifting dynamics and unorthodox riffs on swing, the album sees Davies’ quintet share melodic and rhythmic responsibilities almost equally. “Tiburon” evokes darkness through a groove, while horns and bass turn percussive on the skittering “Hand In Hand.”
Reflecting on her decision to wait, re-record the material and release it 20 years after its inception, Davies is positive.
“I was 20 years older, I was 20 years stronger in my [self] expression,” she said, sipping a glass of red wine in her Terrytown, Louisiana, home.
“We’ve all been so subdued to be fearful of passion and anger and sadness and all this kind of stuff. Passion’s everything. ... If you can still have that and you’ve mastered these channels of energy, then you can just mold them in a certain way into music.”
That ethos, along with a bohemian sense of art as necessity, has driven Davies since childhood, when she regularly joined her jazz-head mother at shows. Davies went on to sing classically, drumming on the side, but things shifted after her teenage years. Her voice changed. She began exploring Europe. And she maintained a special pride in being a female drummer at a time when they were few and far between.
“ There’s not enough of us, and we have our own ways of expressing ourselves,” she said, citing her appreciation of Cindy Blackman and Sheila E.
Today, Davies is one of the few female drummers in a leadership role on the New Orleans jazz scene. She describes members of her band, the Bad Boyzzzz, as “a family” focused on staging conversation through song.
“In the majority of rehearsals, we end up being able to predict what the people around us are doing,” Bad Boyzzzz bassist Oliver Watkinson said. “Billie might play the bass line, for example, and combined with the rearrangement of the horns and how the bass fits into that, makes me view the whole process differently.”
Watkinson noted that whether the band is playing an original or a standard, Davies keeps the role of each musician flexible—an approach that forces players to keep passion and feeling at the forefront of their self-expression.
Davies expressed concerned that “jazz is becoming too intellectualized,” but obstructing that process isn’t her goal.
“I’m not here to stop it,” she said, smiling pensively. “I just want to strip it down of all the bullshit.” —Jennifer Odell
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