blank

Chris 'Snake' Davis.

John Robert Brown

I turn up at BBC Radio York. Waiting for Chris to complete an interview, I chat to Marion, the receptionist, who came here not long after the station opened, and has seen everything. 'Snake? A gentleman,' she says. 'Makes a change from some people in the pop world. If some of them had brains, they'd be lethal.'

A gentleman. That's the abiding impression of Chris Davis. I've known him since he was eighteen, when he came from Harrogate to study at Leeds College of Music. He seems always to have been the same. Quiet, almost shy, patient and well-spoken. Marion is right. Chris appears, and there is a pause while the presenter who is escorting him to the door jots down his address. 'I always like to write and thank my guests,' she says. In my considerable experience of local radio, this is radical stuff. I've never received a thank-you letter. Maybe Radio York is different? More likely it's because Chris Davis is different.

He bundles his alto saxophone into the boot of his smart Audi, and we set off on foot to find somewhere to have tea, sandwiches and a chat. In the café the waitress immediately says, 'You're Snake Davis, the saxophonist.' Wow! I'm impressed. I know many eminent musicians, but it isn't often that I take tea with reed players who are recognised in public.

But Chris Davis works in the centre of the mainstream of popular music. You'll have heard his two saxophone solos on the soundtrack of the latest James Bond film. Pop music enthusiasts will know of his work with Lisa Stansfield or Ray Charles, his solos on Spice Girls singles, his work with M People and his own Snake Davis Band. He is on the road between four and six months of the year and, besides this week's visits to Middlesborough and Carlisle, his recent itinerary has included the USA and three trips to Japan. He looks forward to a possible 1999 American tour of major venues. Chris Davis is in the public eye. People know him.

Of course, we talk saxophones. He has owned around a dozen Selmer Mark V1 instruments. Not collecting for the sake of collecting, but because of the nagging fear that there is a better one out there. And because of the feeling of security gained having a spare instrument. 'I feel I need spares of everything. I'm always on the move, with that fear of my number one instrument being stolen, and it taking a year to find an adequate replacement.' Chris tells of the times when he tries someone else's horn, and it sounds better. Then, maybe a year later, the owner phones up and offers it for sale. Chris buys it. It disappoints. That's partly how he comes to have owned so many saxophones.

We talk of the problem of taking more than one saxophone when flying. Only one instrument - and maybe a flute - can travel as hand luggage. The others go in flight cases, as freight. Frequently they are not returned until a week later. Fortunately, nothing has been damaged - yet.

Chris is sensitive to the varying bell lengths of Mark VI altos, and the effect that the length of the bell has on the intonation of the low notes. Neither of us is sure of the dates of these varying bell lengths, and why they were changed. Curiously, Chris has never been a Selmer-sponsored artist. 'Because I play vintage saxophones, I suppose.' Today's makers want to sell today's instruments. He may not receive free saxophones but, as a performer in the public eye, he gets free Doc Martens!

Many veteran players find discussing mouthpieces boring. Me too. That was all exhausted long ago, and I suspect that Chris shares my impatience with the subject. Nevertheless, mouthpieces are important. An interview for a reed magazine demands that mouthpiece matters be explored, and he patiently explains all.

He played on Dukoff mouthpieces for many years. Eventually disenchanted by the way that they were made, particularly by the softness of the metal, he asked Freddie Gregory in London to make him a custom mouthpiece. The specification included sensible metal, and a lower baffle than the Dukoff. This mouthpiece also disappointed eventually, and Chris found another mouthpiece by Gregory which proved more comfortable. On baritone he uses a Lawton mouthpiece. We discuss the strange way that all mouthpiece makers seem to dislike each other. For that matter, so do jazz magazine editors and some leaders of youth jazz orchestras. Strange. 'But players get on well,' observes Chris. 'I get on well with all the London guys.' I could have guessed. About saxophone reeds there is little to say. He uses Vandoren Java. 'Reeds are worse than women. The bane of every sax player's life...'

The friendly waitress hovers, plying Chris with salad, bread rolls and tea. Our conversation turns to the attitudes, and competence, of record producers.

'Some producers let me do my own thing, give me a bit of guidance, not much more than saying they'd like the solo 'a bit more to the point'. Some ask me to do several solos, stop me when they like one, and ask me if I'm happy. Others ask for dozens of solos, record them on the unlimited hard disk capacity they have nowadays, and are content to sit in front of a screen cutting and pasting.' 'Do you like that?' I ask diffidently. 'No,' he says, unequivocally.

And the attitudes of producers generally? 'It's better for me these days. I'm usually called by people who know me, and who know my playing. They are a lot more inclined to be relaxed. In the early days they would sometimes stop me and say 'I liked the first half of that phrase...'

I ask how well he suffers such people. 'I'm very patient in all of my life,' he says. 'It spills over into the music.'

Chris does very little teaching, usually only special consultation lessons, plus occasional workshops at the major music colleges. I ask him if he has any message for younger readers who are saxophonists. 'Play quietly, play sensitively, and make statements with very few notes in them,' he says, and then leaves a silence. He doesn't elaborate.

We suddenly become aware of the time. Chris's parking meter expired fifteen minutes ago. I gather up my tape machine and raincoat, pay the bill as quickly as possible and manage to tip the wrong waitress. We hurry back through the windswept streets of York to find the car. The traffic warden appears. He is only a hundred yards away, and advancing towards us, vehicle by vehicle. He is not going to be easy going.

The photograph that I had promised the editor comes to mind. A picture is essential. I decide to exploit the legendary Chris Davis patience and take half a dozen quick snaps as the warden draws nearer. When the fellow is only two vehicles away Chris leaps into the car and glides away.

Thank goodness. Chris Davis is such a gentleman that I'd probably have paid the fine for him.

March 1998

Updated and maintained by: routeToWeb