DownBeat March 2021

Dayna Stephens Fulfills Long-Held Dreams

Street and drummer Eric Harland, he shows off his talent for building complex musical struc- tures—absent any chordal scaffolding. Stephens borrowed from Liberty and his pre- vious eight albums as a leader to create the set lists for his 2019 Vanguard residency, a six-night stint with Street, pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. The live recording captures the quartet in deep concentration on more than a dozen tunes: Parks’ comping with open, nuanced chords on “Ran”; Street’s exacting, full-bodied solo on “Loosy Goosy”; Hutchinson’s deftly punctuat- ed swing on “Lesson One”; and Stephens’ clever, monotone motion on “JFK International.” Such moments reveal how carefully Stephens’ ensem- ble executes his concepts. By the time of the residency, Stephens already was a Vanguard veteran, having played there in groups alongside Barron every year since 2007. These annual gigs led, eventually, to an invita- tion to helm his own troupe at the club. “Getting a chance to play there as a leader was a special thing,” he said. “Every time I enter that room, I become like a kid.” On Feb. 12 and 13, Stephens will return to that room to launch Right Now! via the club’s livestream. For the saxophonist, at top of mind is

SAXOPHONIST DAYNA STEPHENS’ WORLD- view differs from that of most people. As the survivor of a rare kidney disease, he understood the threat of the impending global pandemic earlier than most. “At the beginning [of the outbreak], I was really freaked out, because I’m on immunosuppressant drugs to keep the kidney I received,” he recalled. “I had a gig with [pianist] Kenny Barron in Atlanta ... and I was afraid to get on an airplane. So, I drove fromNew York to Atlanta.” Those early, uncertain days of the global health crisis proved transformative for the pro- lific multi-instrumentalist. Six months earlier, he had topped the category Rising Star–Tenor Saxophone in the 2019 DownBeat Critics Poll. And in February 2020, he launched Liberty , his first record for saxophone trio, released on his own label, Contagious Music. He was planning to self-release Right Now! Live At The Village Vanguard , the triumphal recording of his first run as a leader at the fabledWest Village jazz club, in April. “But with the pandemic, it didn’t seem right to release anything,” he said. Stephens had recorded these two career-ex- panding albums, each the fulfillment of a long-held dream, a month apart in early 2019. On Liberty , a spacious recording with bassist Ben

Dayna Stephens has released two career-expanding albums during the past year.

how much has changed since then—technologi- cally, professionally and personally. “There’s an upside to being there on the stage [via streaming], inside of the music, with great sound. It’s like having a front rowseat,” hemused, recalling the many videos of Vanguard perfor- mances that have influenced him. “For us musi- cians, though, it’s not quite the same. The live interaction with the crowd isn’t there.” But in some ways, he sees less interaction as a positive thing: “[The pandemic] has been a great time for self-reflection. I’ve learned that I need to spendmore time [at home], to chill andmeditate. With that in mind, I don’t know if I’ll be out as much, touring and playing.”  —Suzanne Lorge


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