Photo courtesy of the artist.
Praised by Downbeat Magazine as an artist full of composure and imagination, saxophonist and composer Dayna Stephens has been a rising yet vital force on the New York City jazz scene. Known for his vocalistic and syrupy saxophone tone, heart-rending melodic lines, and thought-massaging compositions, Stephens has collaborated with the leading lights in jazz from John Scofield and Al Foster to Aaron Parks and Gretchen Parlato, to name a few. His latest record, Reminiscent, features the dueling tenors of Stephens and Walter Smith III, and showcases several of Stephens’s original tunes.
The last six years have been difficult for Stephens. He suffers from a rare kidney disease called Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FGS) but after a long wait Stephens finally received a kidney transplant in October. Mr. Stephens has jumped immediately back into the jazz scene, and in the past two weeks, Stephens has played as a sideman on gigs with Gerald Clayton and Johnathan Blake.
Dayna Stephens’ show at the Jazz Gallery on December 19th will mark his first as a leader since the kidney transplant. It also will be a first look at a set of original music that Mr. Stephens has been working on with the young trumpeter Philip Dizack. Joining Stephens and Dizack at the Gallery will be pianist Theo Hill, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Jonathan Blake. Jazz Speaks was lucky enough to sit down and talk to Stephens about his musical process.
The Jazz Gallery: In an interview you did with the Jazz Speaks about a year ago, you said “I’ve been here in New York now for 10 years and have never had the same band twice at any of my gigs—sometimes on purpose, sometimes not.” Tell me about this particular band that will be playing at the Gallery, and what your process is behind picking rhythm sections, and combinations of players.
Dayna Stephens: I did a session seven or eight years ago with Johnathan [Blake] and Harish [Raghavan] and I really enjoyed that hook-up. I played on a gig with Johnathan last week, and I knew he’d be in town, so I got him to play. And I knew Ben Street was going to be on his gig, and I didn’t want to have the same rhythm section. But I remembered that session we did eight years ago with Harish, and I thought “if Harish is down, that would be awesome!” And Phil [Dizack] was a given because Phil and I had been writing music together for the past year, so this show will give us a chance to introduce this music to the world. And I played in Theo [Hill]’s band before, and I really dig his energy. He obviously knows how to play the piano really well, but he’s also got a spark that I really appreciate.
TJG: I wanted to ask a little bit about your sound. Compared to other saxophonists, I hear a sweetness in the upper midrange going on that reminds me of the way that some vocalists sound. When you’re improvising, there’s a patience, sense of phrasing and melodic arc to your solos that reminds me of vocalists too. Are there certain vocalists that you’ve drawn inspiration from consciously?
DS: Weirdly enough, I think we JUST passed his hundredth birthday, but I love Sinatra, specifically for his phrasing, but also his sound. Sarah Vaughn has also been a huge influence on me. Even pop singers like Luther Vandross…Radiohead. I listened to those guys pretty heavily. It’s just that human quality of expressing music that I really appreciate.
And a part of that human quality is that you can’t sing if you don’t have any breath. So you have to be patient and be conscious of your breath. To be honest, during dialysis, I didn’t have as much breath as I do now, and it definitely affected my playing, my lung capacity, and my energy. And if you think about having to get through a whole gig…I don’t want to burn it all out on one tune. And I see that as a plus actually. Breath capacity is not something that a lot of guys my age are thinking about. But I was forced to think about phrasing in that very physical way. I feel like I have so much more energy now that my sound is starting to come back to the way it was, but how can you forget what you’ve learned during the last six years?
The thing is, I think space, in general is really important for whatever you’re doing….talking, building a building….you need that space to digest what you just did and think about what you’re going to do next, so that’s what I’m doing while I play. I digest what I just did and think about it for a second, and let that guide what I’m going to do next. The more time you give yourself between the phrases, the clearer the ideas are and the easier it is for people to digest. That’s kind of what I’m going for.
TJG: Do you do anything to center yourself while you play and get into a creative headspace?
DS: No, not really. Usually I try to get to the gig not long before I have to play, because I hate waiting around. I don’t have any rituals or anything like that. I’ve done a little bit of meditation, and checked out some thinkers like JK Krishnamurti and Eckhart Tolle that focus on ego suppression. They have some simple awareness techniques that I don’t necessarily do before the gig but just stay mindful of all the time. I basically try to be a beam of awareness, that’s observing everything. If you can be in that mindset, then it tempers all the crazy emotions that might bubble up!
TJG: I want to ask about the interplay between you and Walter Smith III record Reminiscent. It seems like you have a focus on counterpoint and contrapuntal lines when the two of you are melodically interacting on the record. There are a bunch of tracks on the record where Walter will be playing a melody, and you’ll be weaving around that. Do you write those lines or are you improvising?
DS: On that record, it’s a combination of things. There’s a tune of Walter’s called “Walt’s Waltz” He wrote the harmony lines that are on the head. But on “New Day”, I think on the head out, I play some harmony stuff. And then on Walter’s track “contrafact”, which is basically a contrafact of “Like Someone in Love,” I improvised everything on the head, honestly because the tune was so hard that I didn’t have time to learn it! So I just improvised that part on baritone saxophone. I went to college with Walter and I’ve admired his playing since then. We’ve been wanting to do a record together for a long time.