Noted for his “judicious exuberance” by The New York Times, saxophonist, composer, and educator Dayna Stephens has been a frequent mainstay on the Gallery stage now since 2007. Educated at Berklee College of Music and The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at USC where he studied with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard, Stephens has since played with a rotating cast of musicians that includes Ambrose Akinmusire, Kenny Barron, Taylor Eigsti, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Roy Hargrove, Aaron Parks, Gretchen Parlato, Carlos Santana, John Scofield, Ben Street, and Stevie Wonder, among others. His records have also garnered critical acclaim from the likes of DownBeat, NPR and JazzTimes. The last five years have been challenging for Stephens as he has suffered from a rare kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS); the jazz community has rallied to support the saxophonist through an organization called “Help Dayna Stephens.”
This past summer, Stephens went into the studio with Eric Harland, Larry Grenadier, Julian Lage, Brad Mehldau, and producer Matt Pierson to work on his fifth record, Peace. This Saturday, September 27th, 2014, Stephens returns to our stage with Darrell Green, Dave Robaire, Ben van Gelder, and Sam Yahel. Amidst his busy schedule, Stephens was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss his new records, crowdfunding, his love of comedy, the state of his health, and the influence of Charlie Haden.
The Jazz Gallery: You just finished your fifth record, Peace. How did it go?
Dayna Stephens: Actually, I officially just finished my fifth and seventh records. We had a surplus of material from this past session, so we decided we had enough for two records. Also, I had already recorded an album for Criss Cross last October, and that’s finally going to come out this coming February: Reminiscent. That one is a really fun double-tenor record and has Walter Smith III, Harish Raghavan, Aaron Parks, Mike Moreno and Rodney Green. So, number five is Peace, number six is Reminiscent, and number seven will be called Gratitude, with the same band from Peace. I’d say that Gratitude is probably coming out late spring or early summer in 2015.
Peace was all about standards and three songs taken from films: two by Ennio Morricone and one by Astor Piazzolla, the famous tango composer and bandoneon player. Before we went into the studio, Matt chose the two Morricone songs, which I had never heard before. He gave me a list of a few songs that he thought might go well with this type of record and I chose the ones that really spoke to me. One of them is a tune called “Deborah’s Theme” which is from Once Upon a Time in America, a Robert De Niro film from the ’80s.The other Morricone tune, “Brothers,” is from a film called The Mission, another early De Niro film. “Peace” is obviously the title track, but we actually chose that title about four months before Horace Silver had passed; we obviously didn’t know that was going to happen. We also coincidentally didn’t know that the world would be breaking out as much as it is in the opposite direction of peace [laughs uncomfortably].
TJG: It’s fitting that you put that project together amongst those events…
DS: Yeah, synchronicity is crazy! [laughs] That is all I can say. I’m really happy with the way the record turned out. None of these guys have ever played in this particular format before, and the interaction between Brad and Eric was pretty awesome.