Dayna Stephens, Gratitude, Contagious Music

First published in April 2017. An album that contains some unforced passion and ideas, Dayna Stephens who has been on jazz fans’ lips the word of mouth increasing year in year out since the 38-year-old was fast tracked by the Thelonious Monk …

Published: 28 Jan 2020. Updated: 2 years.

First published in April 2017. An album that contains some unforced passion and ideas, Dayna Stephens who has been on jazz fans’ lips the word of mouth increasing year in year out since the 38-year-old was fast tracked by the Thelonious Monk Institute first emerging in the class of Lionel Loueke more than a decade ago, chooses a battery of saxes and even EWI here. But it is tenor that prevails, for sure he is keeping stellar company with not just Brad Mehldau but the pianist’s bassist Larry Grenadier, former child prodigy Julian Lage on guitar and the Charles Lloyd drummer Eric Harland on board but there is a community of musicians at work here and not a line-up by name check.

Stephens has a full sound, you can hear a huge amount of detail in his lead improvising notes and he has a persuasive improvising style that bypasses paraphrase and instead zones in on the jagged intervals and micro connections that he manages to make with the chordal instruments. Yes there is that Coltranian definition sometimes and there is also that confidence that goes beyond the sheer bravery in discovering the simplicity he needs to communicate his music: the tunes go somewhere.

Recorded in a studio in Rhinebeck, New York State it is not as if if Stephens has not paid his dues having released quite a few albums so far and he has had his own struggles beyond music in battling a rare kidney disease, the gratitude in the title you might say is deadly serious. The material here is interesting, tunes by new composers such as Aaron Parks and Rebecca Martin finding their place alongside Strayhorn and Pat Metheny numbers.

‘In a Garden’ by Aaron Parks has that mournful meditative sound you find on a John Coltrane record, but ‘Woodside Waltz’ by Lage shifts focus and manages to shed any over-earnestness that the album might otherwise indulge. Stephens manages to expand the best approaches in the area of big tenor statement in recent years usually undertaken by the likes of Kamasi Washington or JD Allen but his sound has more room to manoeuvre as he manages to bend the EWI in the right direction on the gorgeous Pat Metheny ballad ‘We Had A Sister’. Stephens keeps his own originals to a minimum with ‘The Timbre of Gratitude’ the only one from his own pen yet timbre is relevant and very important on this record where the character of his sound is best expressed and most deeply embedded. A wonderful record that ought to find wide appeal. SG

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Track of the day: 'Abichu Nega Nega' by Hailu Mergia

Ethio-jazz icon keyboardist Hailu Mergia has a new album soon, his first in a couple of years. Called Yene Mircha in the Amharic language (''My Choice'' in English) it is to be released in late-March on the Awesome Tapes From Africa label. Drawn …

Published: 28 Jan 2020. Updated: 2 years.

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Ethio-jazz icon keyboardist Hailu Mergia has a new album soon, his first in a couple of years. Called Yene Mircha in the Amharic language (''My Choice'' in English) it is to be released in late-March on the Awesome Tapes From Africa label. Drawn from the album, 'Abichu Nega Nega' (meaning ''How Are You, Abichu?'' a Mergia arrangement of a traditional piece) is streaming.

Setegn Atenaw who plays the mesenqo (a single stringed lute), vocalist Tsehay Kassa and saxophonist Moges Habte are among the album's personnel. Blessed with an open feel and plenty of space for experimentation the groove has a 1970s feel, Mergia adding rhapsodic highly absorbing flourishes as the instrumental decants into declarative vocal and then develops a whole new motific direction as vocals dip in and out of his charismatic solo line.

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