Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dayna Stephens Gratitude

Dayna Stephens
Contagious Music

The title of saxophonist Dayna Stephens latest album (his eighth as a leader) refers to the warmth, love, peace and strong connections he has shared with friends, family and fellow musicians, as he climbed his way back to health after fighting Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSG), a rare kidney disease. As he states "after receiving so much love and support from so many people in my life, I am saturated with immense gratitude, perhaps completing a circle that started with those ingredients. This collection of songs serves as an expression of that deep-seated gratitude." He is heard on tenor & baritone saxophones, EWI, synthesizer, and bass on one track, and joined by a stellar band of Brad Mehldau (piano, tack piano ), Julian Lage (guitar), Larry Grenadier (bass) and Eric Harland (drums & cymbals).

Among the uniting factors of the music on this album is "that they all have to my ear enchanting, beautiful singable melodies," and starts with the lovely "Emilie" by Olivier Manchon and it introduces us to the warmth of  Stephens' sensuous tone on a gem of a performance that also features Medldau's piano with a long section when they are playfully trading fours. Aaron Parks' ballad "In a Garden," has Lage guitar providing harmony under Stephens with Grenadier takes a solo before Stephens wonderfully constructed solo that builds up with Lage's assistance and electronics adding to the atmosphere. Lage's "Woodside Waltz," has a playful figure at its core and with Lage's guitar as well as Stephens own playing has a rootsy appeal (similar to some of John Scofield's recent recordings). Stephens contributed "The Timbre of Gratitude," with Lage takes the first solo before Stephens enters. Then there is a sublime rendition of Billy Strayhorn's ballad "Isfahan," with just Lage backing him.

While not a perfect analogy, as his musical approach is rooted more in today's contemporary approach, but Stephens reminds this writer of the great Ben Webster with his attention to his tone and every note plays seems thoughtfully considered. This is so even when  playing horn lines on an electronic instrument as on Rebecca Martin's "Don't Mean a Thing at All," with a pleasing Mehldau solo as well. Besides the wonderful playing of Stephens, Mehldau and Lage, one cannot forget the significant contributions of Grenadier's bass and Harland's drums, along with the leader's judicious employment of electronics. This all contributes to the beauty, warmth and lyrical qualities that infuse the performances of this wonderful recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the May-June 2017 (Jazz & Blues Reprt (Issue 372) although I have made some corrections and clarifying changes. Here is a video of Dayna  Stephens performing.

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