A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Ethen Aardvark, from wikimedia commons

Photo by Ethen Aardvark, from wikimedia commons

As you’re posthumously nerding out this week in internet reconnaissance, looking for the shreddiest of Prince, a good place to start might be the “Small Club” bootleg—a legendary artifact among fans for documenting his live chops in high quality soundboard audio. While Prince was noted for his mastery as a multi-instrumentalist, he definitely shines through as a guitarist on this tape.

You might also take a moment to consider some stellar collaborations between other notable contemporary guitarists and the saxophonist-composer Dayna Stephens who, in preparation for his performance this Saturday with trumpeter Philip Dizack, was kind enough to sit down and share his thoughts on the recently fallen pop idol among other things.

Here is Dayna laying down some EWI thoughts on “Cosmic Patience” in 360 Virtual Reality with Gilad Hekselman on a roof in Brooklyn.

Here he is with Julian Lage, on “On The Trail” – Live at Berklee:

 The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell me more about this project with Philip—is it a continuation of the music you presented on your last date at the Gallery?

Dayna Stephens: Philip and I have been writing music together for the past year and we’ve accumulated quite a bit of tunes. This will be a bit different from our last performance at the Gallery—there will be a couple of tunes we wrote together but this is a unique project for trumpet, trombone and tenor as a front line—basically the Messengers’ normal instrumentation. The music is very different than the Messengers, [laughs] but I’ve always liked that instrumentation. It’s also the instrumentation on John Coltrane’s Blue Train which is one of my favorite records of all time. All together, we’ll be playing selections from the last 15 years of my music.

TJG: How did that relationship with Philip come about? How has it unfolded since?

DS: We had the idea of just talking about music and hanging out. Then in the moment, we decided we should try to write a tune together. That tune was called “Repeating History,” the first of six or seven tunes we’ve done. Since that first meeting the process has been easy but it took some effort to find an effective approach to writing efficiently as neither of us had cowritten music with other folks that much. We experimented with a few different ways of writing. On the last three songs, we kind of settled on one person taking the melody, which is usually Phil, writing the bass motion together, and then usually I’ll take it and add the harmony to what those two different notes are implying. The results are some very unique sounding songs that I think neither of us would have come up with on our own. So I really enjoy it.

TJG: Tell me more about the Messengers’ influence on you. What did you listen to?

DS: It’s been a minute since I’ve checked that out. I’m actually not listening to it right now because I don’t want to mimic anything but Caravan comes to mind.

I think the function of that band, in the history of jazz music is really important because it showcased a lot of the younger players that maybe weren’t as established, players that weren’t household names when they were in that band. Blakey was usually the oldest guy in the band and in our configuration, although Nick Vayenas is actually a year older than me, its a similar case for me because I’ve put together some younger players. Maybe folks that know my music haven’t heard these guys yet.

TJG: Is there any sort of etiquette in the community around showcasing younger players?

DS: Not necessarily, in general people tend to play with people they click with on a personal level also, not just a musical level. I tend not to care as much about the personal side of it. I mean if I have a strong conflict with someone I would care, but my main focus is: what is it going to sound like, what is it going to feel like when we count off the tunes.

TJG: Artistic faculty outweighs personality in this case….

DS: Yeah, there are a lot of guys who don’t get as much recognition because they have a less social personality or whatever. I almost tend to have a lot more sympathy for those guys and want to even showcase cats like that because you know, none of us can help who the fuck we are, what our past is and how its brought us to this moment. 

What’s your favorite ice cream?

TJG: Chocolate.

DS: Ok, so there is no way in the world that you would have chosen Eucalyptus flavor because you’ve never had it, you’ve never had the opportunity to know that it exists. You know what I’m saying? You’re only choosing from the shit you’ve been exposed to—is that really free will? The one thing we have in common is music so why not let the music unite us in ways that other situations may not. I mean music has always been a uniter anyway.

It’s a long discussion, I don’t know, fuck it, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.

TJG: People are sleeping on Eucalyptus ice cream.

Dayna: [Laughs] There are a lot of Eucalyptus plants where I grew up, a smell from my childhood. They’re really from Australia and they made their way to California. They were in big form by the time I was growing up.

The Jazz Gallery: You were recently checking out some mouthpieces the other day with Ted Klum. Tell me a bit more about this process.

DS: This is a very geeky aspect of saxophone playing. The mouthpiece is really the first thing that connects you to the instrument. The way its designed, the space between the reed and the actual mouth piece, the inside of the mouthpiece – how small it or big the space is, all of it factors into what comes out of the horn and how comfortable it is for you to connect with that horn. Its a very intimate process [laughs].

Everyone has their own particulars based on their own physique and their own musicality. In high school I played metal mouthpieces partially because I thought they looked cooler but I also knew that Coltrane played one, in addition to a lot of other guys, including my grandfather. One time I was teaching in probably junior or senior year of high school, and a kid had a hard rubber mouthpiece. He let me try it and, immediately I knew that was the sound that I had always wanted [laughs]. From that point on, I’ve always played hard rubber mouthpieces.

I’ve had many different mouthpieces. I’d go five, six or seven years just using one piece. The one I’ve been using now I’ve had for last two or three years. The last two are both from Ted Klum.

However, this last Friday, Ted asked me if I’ve ever tried any of their metal pieces and I never had just because I knew that its not what I was looking for, but I tried this one that he had and it really intrigued me. I actually spent the money and bought it; I even used it on a recording session yesterday. It’s not as bright and edgy as most metal mouthpieces. It retains a lot of warmth that I like in rubber. So I’m having a little fling with this one at the moment if you will. I feel like I’m cheating [laughs].

TJG: 2016 will be the year of “Metal” Dayna—do you listen to Metal?

DS: I like Metallica…and well I guess Nirvana is considered grunge, but I’m not offended by rock at all, good music is good music. Prince was good music by the way.

TJG: What was Prince’s roll in your life? Did you listen to him a lot?

DS: I was really young when the film Purple Rain came out, about eight years old. I remember all the hoopla surrounding it, but I was way too young to get any of the references [laughs]. I remember the sound in the house though, it was something that everyone was into. I don’t know if I’ve honestly met anyone in my whole life that has a dispute about this cat, [laughs] maybe they haven’t been exposed to him yet, but no one has ever said “I don’t like Prince,” or they thinks that Prince sucks. There’s just no question, I mean people in all genres of music appreciate this cat.

I still feel like a 37 year old me is not as comfortable in his own skin as let’s say a 19 year old Prince was. He was unique and disciplined—I shouldn’t use the word passion, I mean I’m passionate about my music but this guy—his work ethic and his obsession with the art was matched by no one that I’ve ever heard of. I can’t think of a genre where a cat has been as prolific. I mean Duke Ellington wrote thousands of tunes but this was in an era where there were no music videos, dance routines or imagery. Prince created a whole world, its like he needed his own purple planet to match the universe he created. I don’t know, it’s unbelievable that he’s talked about in the past tense in at this point.

I wasn’t as obsessed as a lot of folks I know about his music but I’ve known his genius since as long as I’ve known who he was. My first saxophone teacher Norbert Stachel played saxophone with him many years ago and I knew even back then that that was a big deal because Prince played all the instruments. For him to hire someone else to play a different instrument was a big deal. I still think the world of Norbert, he lives here in New York now. He’s plays every single woodwind that is known to man. He’s a freak of nature saxophone player.

TJG: You’ve played with so many people and make a point to do so, but you noted in your last interview that 3WI has been your most consistent band to date—how is this a different experience for you now?

Dayna: It’s the only band that I’ve ever had more than one or two gigs with. At the Monk Institute it was seven of us playing in that same band for two years, and I experienced developing an ongoing thing with the same personnel. I’m at the point right now where I’m kind of missing that and 3WI is kind of filling that void. With 3WI being a trio, it is more financially viable and the fact that we’re all committed to building something with it, makes it a lot more conducive to touring. Putting out a record is a really important next step at this point.

TJG: And you’re more conducive to touring now…

Yes, six months and one and one half weeks ago, I had a kidney transplant. There is a three month recovery time and in the three months since I recovered, I can count on maybe one hand the days I’ve had off, its been absolutely nuts. During those three months when I was recovering I had a lot of time to write,  so now on the other side of this life changing experience I find myself needing to prioritize my time a lot more productively and effectively. I’m having to readjust to this new capacity of energy. I have to find out how much I can use this battery before it runs out. Its coming together, I’m just realizing I can’t say yes to everything like I did before. There are more opportunities then there were before now because I have more opportunity to travel. I’m going back to Europe next week. I feel very fortunate. Not that I’ve had a choice how the last few chapters went, and not that I have a lot of choice in how the next few chapters will go, but I want to do all in my power to accomplish and experience all the things I’ve dreamed of.

Dayna Stephens will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, April 30th, 2016. This performance features Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone, Philip Dizack on trumpet, Nick Vayenas on trombone, Gadi Lehavi on piano, Rick Rosato on bass and Jonathan Pinson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30p.m. Each set is $22 general admission and $12 for members. Purchase tickets here.