Dayna Stephens Fulfills Long-Held Dreams


Dayna Stephens released two career-expanding albums this year: the studio effort Liberty and Right Now! Live At The Village Vanguard.

(Photo: John Rogers)

Saxophonist Dayna Stephens’ worldview 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 COVID-19 outbreak], I was really freaked out, because I’m on immunosuppressant drugs to keep the kidney I received,” he recalled during a recent Zoom call. “I had a gig with [pianist] Kenny Barron in Atlanta on January 25, and I was afraid to get on an airplane. So, I drove from New York to Atlanta. People thought I was crazy.”

Those early, uncertain days of the global health crisis proved transformative for the prolific multi-instrumentalist. (Besides reeds and brass, Stephens plays piano and bass.) Six months earlier, he had topped the Rising Star Tenor Saxophone category in the 2019 Downbeat Critics Poll. And in February 2020, he launched Liberty, his first record for sax 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 fabled West 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-expanding albums, each the fulfillment of a long-held dream, a month apart in early 2019. On Liberty, a spacious recording with bassist Ben Street and drummer Eric Harland, he shows off his talent for building complex musical structures—absent any chordal scaffolding.

“I always wanted to make a trio record, and it just never happened” he explained, citing the trio achievements of saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and Branford Marsalis as models for this undertaking. “There’s that power of three—you can really be in the center of that instrumentation. I tend to write harmonies that can be ear-bending, and in a trio, there is so much room for harmonic interpretation.”

Stephens borrowed from Liberty and his previous eight albums as a leader to create the set lists for his February 2019 residency at the Vanguard, a six-night stint with Street, pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. As a surprise, family members—including the aunt who’d been Stephens’ kidney donor about five years ago—had flown in from the West Coast for the Saturday show. Most of the live album’s tracks are from that one, happy evening.

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 punctuated swing on “Lesson One”; and Stephens’ clever, monotone motion on “JFK International.” Such moments reveal how carefully Stephens’ ensemble 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 invitation to lead 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, 2021, Stephens will return to that room to launch Right Now! via the club’s livestream, a week shy of the two-year anniversary of his initial leader engagement. For the saxophonist, at top of mind is how much has changed since then—technologically, 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 row seat,” he mused, recalling the many videos of Vanguard performances that have influenced him. “For us musicians, 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 spend more time [at home], to chill and meditate. With that in mind, I don’t know if I’ll be out as much, touring and playing.”

This said, after Right Now!, Stephens’ next project takes space travel as its theme. On Pluto Juice—the self-titled debut album of his new quartet with co-leader/drummer Anthony Fung, bassist Rich Brown and guitarist Andrew Marzotto—Stephens barely plays sax at all, opting instead for the reverberating electronics of the EWI. Fantastical and inspiriting, the album is due out in early 2021.

Stephens explains the source of the group’s unusual name: “I’m a big fan of [astronomer] Carl Sagan, and I think of his quote, describing the Earth as a ‘pale blue dot’ in satellite photos taken from Pluto. That statement encapsulates the perspective I have about things on our planet. The lines of division—we need to take the grand, bird’s-eye view of them. So, if we’re drinking juice on Pluto, what would we be thinking of the Earth? That’s the vibe.” DB

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September 2023
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