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Snake Davis At Home
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
Snake Davis
Just across the Humber Bridge, a quarter-acre Japanese garden lies hidden away in the tiny North Lincolnshire hamlet of Wootton. I cross the chamomile lawn and enter what looks like a minka, a traditional Japanese house. Inside is a state-of-the-art recording studio, Miles Davis’s All Blues is playing softly in the background and the legendary saxophonist Snake Davis is poring over a sheet of music.

He’s tall, when he stands up, trim and slim, as you'd expect someone called Snake to be, and he’s wearing Pilates gear. He’s just back from a work-out and it’s what keeps him fit, that and cycling.

He’s in the middle of a long tour which began in Helmsley and will end in Skipton, having played to packed houses from Boroughbridge to Birkenshaw, Boston Spa and Beverley. He’s also got a new album in the offing.

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But Snake seems happiest discussing all things Japanese and the frequent pilgrimages he makes to that country to play in the band of the Japanese Rock superstar whom he always refers to respectfully as Mister Yazawa. He picks up the Japanese flute, the shakuhachi, which often features in his own gigs, and plays it soulfully, whilst staring out across the rock garden he has created.

You probably wouldn’t know it but this is the man who has played with all the giants of modern music, had long collaborations with Heather Small of M-People, made world tours with Lisa Stansfield, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart and recorded with such as James Brown, Paul McCartney, George Michael and Tina Turner, to name just a few of the big stars who wanted his supercharged sax backing them.

He’s also toured with Soul legends, Edwin Starr, Rose Royce, Sister Sledge, Tavares, Odyssey, The Three Degrees, Mary Wells, Ruby Turner, Martha Reeves and Eddie Holman. In fact, he’s put his stamp on more than 400 major records and has backed Ray Charles, Tom Jones, The Eurythmics, George Michael, Cher and Kylie. Let’s not forget, he wrote the iconic sax solo on Take That's hit A Million Love Songs.

A uniquely talented individual equally excelling in so many genres, Soul, R & B, Jazz, Pop, Rock, World Music, even Folk, he’s softly spoken and the very opposite of what you imagine a virtuosic star to be. The word that most people apply is humble. He read Philosophy, at Liverpool University, and later took an interest in transcendental meditation. Without the musical talent, he thinks he might have been a psychiatric nurse. Yet, he recognises that right from his early upbringing in Newport, South Wales, a boy soprano in the local choir, he has always been destined for a life in music.

The family moved to Harrogate when he was 16 and he attended Harrogate Grammar. In his teenage years he ‘accidentally stumbled over a flute’ and one bright day found a compulsion to hitchhike to London to buy a second-hand alto sax. As soon as he took up the instrument ‘suddenly everything changed, came into focus.’ He practised ‘crazily’, obsessively 8 or 10 hours a day, and cites Tiger Woods as an authority that great achievement is ninety per cent hard work and ten per cent talent.

He completed his education at Leeds College of Music, studying Jazz, busking around to pay his fees and learning his craft which he immediately put to good use working on the cruise ships. He had three years of ceaseless musical activity, sometimes going six months without a single day off, but it was ‘character-building’, he remembers, and it enabled him to see the world, to hone his skills and to work under intense pressure. Eventually he jumped ship in New York to see two of his idols, reedmen, Eddie Daniels and Gerry Niewood, and learn from them.

Snake Davis. Photo by Ben Hodges
He moved to London, aged 32, because that was where the work was and the next thirty years went by in a blur, but he recalls some of the highlights, like a concert directed by Burt Bacharach at a packed Albert Hall and being challenged by the exacting standards imposed by the great genius Ray Charles. He reels off anecdotes about a litany of stars, including Dionne Warwick, Bob Geldorf and Petula Clark.

He was working constantly, both as a session musician and with his own bands, always on the road. He remembers the great pleasure he always experienced ‘when the reed feels right, when you’re in good company and playing your heart out for the audience. That's seemless and beautiful, the same today, even playing for audiences in small intimate venues.’

At last we come to the current tour which began in September 2018, continues with breaks and will finish in November 2019. He opens a computer spreadsheet, inspects his schedule for the next year. He’s down to do three or four gigs a week all over the country, plus perhaps another trip to Japan. He’s going to be busy but that is how he likes it. ‘I love live performance above all else. It’s what drives me!'

I ask about the two recent wonderful albums of classic sax solos which he plays in the styles of such disparate greats as Charlie Parker, David Sanborn and Ernie Watts. ‘Each took well over a year to record, using four different studios before compiling and mixing in a fifth. I think you could call them a labour of love which allowed me to express my deep love and respect for my mentors and heroes.’

Why is it that the sax, particularly perhaps the tenor, so allows the player to express himself? Briefly we discuss Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker. He gives it some thought: ‘the tenor is the nearest in register to the male voice, it becomes an extension of your own voice. When you breathe into it, it seems like you’re pouring out your soul.’

The word Soul provides a cue to ask what this music means to him. ‘I guess you could call me a “Soul Boy”,’ he says. ‘I grew up listening to the music of Detroit, Motown, Stax and Atlantic. Between the full band shows I do lots of concerts with Burden of Paradise, a trio with long-time friends, singer-guitarist Helen Watson and double bassist Dave Bowie Junior, with the accent on Soul and Northern Soul. There's still huge interest in this style of music.'

When it’s put to him that he must have his work cut out running two bands, he says quickly: ‘But there’s a whole world of music I still want to explore’. He tells me about the hang drum, a bit like the steel pans used in Reggae and Calypso but softer, that will feature in the new album to be called Frog On A Lilypad, or alternatively Serenity. ‘It’s a work in progress and I’m still eager to embrace new musical challenges,’ he says. ‘I’m really excited by what we are creating here.’

With such a title it’s bound to be quietly reflective, I suggest. ‘Yes, we get so many requests for more shakuhachi and woodflute, the floaty dreamy stuff - that’s the direction it’s taking at the moment but there’s still some way to go yet.’

Clearly Snake’s musical development also still has some way to go, but he and his wife, Sally, have found their serenity here in Wootton. He’s very happy to have recently put his property in the south on the market. ‘We don’t ever want to leave from here,’ he says as he walks me over sweet-smelling moss in the direction of his house. ‘We call the studio Heion-ji, which means temple of calm. It’s the perfect retreat for practice and recording after intense touring periods.’

In the coming weeks you can catch him in Barton-on-Humber, Castleford and Harrogate, details of which are on: www.snakedavis.rocks.

Snake Davis At Home, 31st October 2018, 16:52 PM