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.
TJG: You play some upright bass, as well. How did that come about, and how does your bass playing inform your compositional style?
DS: When I was at the Monk Iinstitute, we went on a trip to Albequerque, New Mexico, and they have an amazing bass shop. I had always messed around a little bit with bass, but when I went to that shop, I played an amazing $28,000 bass, and it was life changing. I obviously didn’t buy it, but I played it at the store and I really liked it. So the next day I was back in California, went to the store, and bought the cheapest bass I could find! Actually, when I was in college, I had a fretless electric bass, because I knew I wanted to play upright. So I learned the fingerboard and learned some scales, so that when I finally got to upright, I wouldn’t have to worry about finding the notes, and I could focus on developing a sound instead. So I bought the bass and a year or so later I started gigging.
TJG: Of all the musicians that you go WAY back with, from Taylor Eigsti and Julian Lage, to Ambrose Akinmusire and Christian Scott, are there any particular musicians that you feel you have a supernatural musical connection or profound interactivity with?
DS: Taylor and Julian both bring everyone around them to a new level. That’s for sure. I’d say big-time with Aaron Parks. I love playing with Aaron Parks. I feel like we’re on the same wavelength musically. In terms of space; in terms of songwriting. I love that cat to death. But there are a lot!
TJG: What’s on the horizon? Are you planning on recording this project with Philip Dizack?
DS: A recording would be nice, and we’re still talking about it. I’m actually meeting him later today. But it’d be nice to record the music and document what we’ve done. I have a group called 3WI with Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Adam Arruda on drums, and I. Adam Arruda is a cat from Toronto who studied at Berklee and graduated two or three years ago. I play EWI and EWI bass, and Gilad has a pedal that lets him switch over to bass for when I’m soloing and vice versa. So we have all these songs worked out in that configuration. That’s honestly the only consistent band that I’ve had in New York. We’ve played a number of gigs, and we’ll be playing at Winter Jazzfest this year on the 15th with Sam Yahel added. It’s gonna be really fun.
The thing I want to do before recording 3WI is that we have eight tracks left over from the recording “Peace” that I did with Eric [Harland], Brad [Mehldau], and Larry [Grenadier], and I want to record two more tunes and release it as a new record. Unlike “Peace,” which was mostly ballads, this record is going to be mostly tunes written by friends of mine, and not all ballads. It’s funny how the last record ended up, because we just ended up putting all ballads on that record, and leaving the more modern stuff off. There were a bunch of records I listened to for inspiration for that recording. Obviously, Coltrane’s Ballads was huge. Mark Turner has a record called Ballads that’s awesome. And I’m a huge Brad Mehldau fan, and he was ballsy enough to start his first Art of the Trio record with a ballad! I don’t know any other record that does that! That just did it for me.
TJG: You did some arranging for big band and orchestra recently. What was that like?
DS: The orchestral stuff was actually for Taylor [Eigsti]. He put the project together and had arranged a couple of times for a symphony orchestra in the Bay Area called The Peninsular Symphony. I arranged a Dave Brubeck tune called, “The Duke”, and a tune of mine that I wrote for Charlie Haden. It was about a year ago, and it was the experience of a lifetime. I never had written for a group that size, but when this came up, I bought a new writing program and went to town.
For the big band thing: Berklee College of Music had me come back and I arranged some of my tunes for the Greg Hopkins Big Band. I want to write five more arrangements of these tunes and do a full record, but you need a lot of time to sit down and do that.
TJG: When you sit down for a practice session, what is it that you go about shedding? Do you have a practice routine? Are there specific things you’re working on? Do you have jam sessions regularly?
DS: Well, I live out in New Jersey, and no one wants to come out there! I have drums, bass, and piano at my house, but it’s going to waste! Whenever I have free time these days, though, I’m writing. This phase really started this year. I usually just write two or three songs a year, but this year has been different. Since March, I’ve been writing nonstop.
The way I practice these days, is that I’ll put on a song on my iRealPro software program, and play along. I really just practice improvising. There are periods where I’ll shed a musical idea for a couple of days, but I’m really just always improvising. My grandfather used to get on my case when I was young about that. He’d say “You’re just playing! Why are you just playing all the time?”
TJG: Are there any people who you consciously transcribed?
DS: I’ve never been a big transcriber. My first teacher stressed the importance of having an individual voice. I once heard someone say, you want to capture the essence of someone’s playing but not the exact details. Now, it’s easier to transcribe someone who’s not a saxophone player and hide it. Kurt Rosenwinkel is another one of my idols. That cat hits me compositionally, improvisationally, sound…He’s the complete package. I feel like I can play some of his stuff on saxophone and it doesn’t sound like Kurt Rosenwinkel. I might transcribe one line that someone does just to figure out why it sounds so amazing. But I haven’t transcribed a whole solo since college for an assignment. I transcribed Wayne’s solo on “E.S.P.”, but that’s about it.
I actually transcribed a couple of McCoy [Tyner] solos, but I couldn’t get to the end! All the pentatonic stuff has informed my concept heavily. I don’t know why people can’t hear that clearly, but pentatonics is a lot of what I do. It’s basically like an arpeggio, but with five notes in it instead of four. It’s the perfect amount of notes for me to establish what harmony-land you’re in without it sounding like I’m playing scales. So using that logic, it’s easy to superimpose a variety of pentatonics over what key you’re in, and to use other keys as a tension resolving back to the original key. McCoy works really well with that concept on “Surrey With a Fringe on Top” from Time for Tyner. It’s not his best known record, but it showed me a lot.
TJG: Are there any artists that you’re surrounding yourself with the music of now?
DS: It changes a lot, but I’ve been checking out Ben Wendel a bunch recently. I have all the Kneebody stuff, but I’ve also been listening to stuff he’s been on as a sideman. I’ve had him in my band a bunch of times, and there’s some stuff in the Smalls archive with us together.
TJG: How does your style on EWI vary from your sound on sax, and how is it informed by your saxophone technique? What different things are you going for with it?
DS: The EWI is MIDI, but it has breath control, which means I can play a note and change the volume of it with my breath. So I’m still in the midst of learning how to use software sounds and adjusting those sounds to respond to my breath control. But there are a hundred sounds in the instrument already. I can hook it up to my computer and tweak them. But the difference between saxophone and EWI is that I have to actually create my sound electronically. There’s nothing I can do acoustically once I’m playing that can change my sound. Whereas with the saxophone, it’s all acoustic, and the sound can be very inconsistent from gig to gig. The other difference is that there are no moving parts on the EWI. The buttons don’t move. They’re just touch sensitive. So I actually have to be way more accurate finger-wise on the EWI, whereas I can be a little bit sloppy on the saxophone. Little mistakes and unintended notes on the saxophone don’t factor in as much. It’s easier to be sloppy because you dictate time by tonguing the notes. Whereas with EWI, every little movement is heard. It’s a really sensitive instrument. Conversely, it’s much easier to get volume out of it because it’s amplified. And the EWI has an eight octave range. It’s like a piano. So I have way more range on EWI than on saxophone so that it sometimes feels limiting to play saxophone. You can play two notes at once on EWI, or have an octave below added. And I can use delay, and chorus for Leslie effects. I’m still in the honeymoon phase with that axe. I definitely model my EWI sound a little bit on my tenor sound where there are some fluffy highs and some breathy noise to make it a little more organic, but that’s as close as I get. But I look at the EWI as it’s own instrument. It’s like saxophone playing from the future.
TJG: Anything else you want to add about the upcoming hit at the Gallery?
DS: I’m still forever appreciative for everyone helping me get this far, especially the guys at the Jazz Gallery. They’ve been supporters of mine since I’ve stepped foot in New York, and I’m endlessly appreciative.
Saxophonist Dayna Stephens plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, December 19th, 2015. Joining Mr. Stephens are Philip Dizack on trumpet, Theo Hill on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members). Purchase tickets here.