Dayna Stephens – Gratitude – Contagious Music 

Dayna Stephens – Gratitude – Contagious Music CGM002, 51:28 ****:

Tenor saxophonist has a unique approach to jazz!

(Dayna Stephens – tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone,EWL synthesizer, bass; Julian Lage – guitar; Brad Mehldau – piano, tack piano; Larry Grenadier – bass; Eric Harland – drums, cymbals)

Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bay Area, saxophonist Dayna Stephens traveled Eastward to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz and the Berklee School Of Music.He has played with many notable jazz artists including Kenny Barron, Gerald Clayton, Taylor Eigsti, Julian Lage, Eric Harland and Ambrose Akinmusire. But Stephens has established himself as a frontman, composer and interpreter. His slow, deliberate development of saxophone melodic lines eschews the overtly flashy improvisational representations of his predecessors and present counterparts. On the latest release Gratitude (his 8th as a band leader), Stephens has reassembled the top-notch group of musicians (Julian Lage/guitar; Brad Mehidlau/piano; Larry Grenadier – bass; Eric Harland – drums)  that graced 2014’s Peace. With appropriate emotion and pathos, Stephens has crafted a musical catharsis of his recovery from a severe medical illness.

Gratitude, with only one original number, draws its inspiration from modern composers. The opening track (written by Oliver Manchon) is a gently flowing romantic arrangement with a Brazilian undercurrent (courtesy of pianist Brad Mehldau). Stephen’s vibrato-free tenor lines are fluid with occasional accelerated notation. Mehldau’s solo is deft and infuses articulate melody exploration. “In A Garden” is a meditative, soulful ballad. Stephens” relaxed tenor is complemented by Julian Lage’s supple guitar accents. Larry Grenadier shines on a distinctive double bass solo before returning the song to the bittersweet sax. Mehldau returns on the understated Michelle Amador number, “Amber Is Falling”, but there is a tempo uptick at the 1:40 mark. Stephens and Mehldau both solo and Grenadier and Harland prove to be a daunting rhythm section and raise the intensity.

A certain highlight (and possible surprise) is the Lage-penned opus “Woodside (as in the Peninsula) Waltz”. The loping jazz/country 3/4 piece is paced by Stephen’s lower register work, Mehldau’s vintage “tack” piano and Lage’s nimble, twangy guitar.The band works perfectly together. Taking a different approach, Stephens utilizes the EWI synthesizer (sounds like a flute) to provide a layered imagery on the Pat Metheny composition “We Had A Sister”. The pensive arrangement is ethereal and hypnotic. Stephen’s lone writing contribution “The Timbre Of Gratitude” is a testament to his uncluttered approach. He and Lage play off each other in agile harmonies. Even more impressive is Stephen’s taming of the imposing baritone saxophone on an abbreviated cover of Billy Strahorn’s  “Isfahan”. The musical genesis of the “bari” began in large classical symphonies, marching bands and big band jazz groups. It is refreshing and creative too see this instrument used for melodic shading. Finishing Gratitude, Rebecca Martin’s “Don’t Mean A Thing” is wistful and features a delicate sax lead and an eloquent guitar run. “Clouds” veers into electronic-pulse mode to give a different sound to the Stephens brand of resonance.

Gratitude is an interesting, creative jazz statement!               

TrackList: 
Emilie
In A Garden
Amber Is Falling (Red And Yellow)
Woodside Waltz
We Had A Sister
The Timbre Of Gratitude; Isfahan
Don’t Mean A Thing At All
Clouds & Clouds

—Robbie Gerson

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