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.
TJG: Crowdfunding is a popular promotional tool these days. Why did you decide to use Pledge Music for this process? How do you see the role of these tools evolving in music promotion?
DS: I did a Kickstarter project for my record That Nepenthetic Place. Matt introduced me to Pledge Music. I had a meeting with them and it seemed like a new approach to crowdfunded projects. They’re really only geared towards music. and I like that focus. With respect to 2014 and the evolution of technology, it’s much easier to make music at home these days but it’s much harder to make money making music [laughs].
I think this crowdsourcing phenomenon at present serves as a foundation for a new model to evolve. There’s got to be a way to connect with the fans and have an easy way for them to find new music and easy way to support it. What else out there is there that is doing a better job? I don’t see anything. The labels are still pulling their hair out, trying to figure out what to do. I think the art suffers a bit from the labels’ paranoia about decreasing revenues.
TJG: When it comes to composing, making a record, or playing a live show, what is most important to you, in terms of timbre, rhythm, harmony, and melody?
DS: I tend to start with bass and drums when I’m putting a band together for any context. This was kind of a rare case with Peace because I knew what I wanted once Brad was on board. 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. One ingredient can really change the whole soup. I tend to make sure the drums and bass are really going to be cool and then it’s a breeze from there. It’s like putting a set list together. If I can get the first song together, the rest of the set list kind of builds itself.
TJG: Has your compositional process changed at all over the years?
DS: My compositional process definitely varies from song to song, but one way that has always seemed to work for me is starting with two voices, bass and soprano: counterpoint. If I can get something that sounds good with those two, the rest writes itself. Most songs start out that way, but some could be my own take on the blues or possibly I’m working within a set form or contrafact (a tune based off of someone else’s tune). If it’s not that situation, I’m pretty through-composed; I let the song kind of weave where it naturally wants to go.
I love Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Mehldau, and Mark Turner for achieving dense and intricate harmonies with very singable melodies. I always try to make sure I have that quality. Seeing Wayne Shorter write at the piano was really eye-opening. He kind of writes the melody and fishes around for the right harmony to fit with that melody. I didn’t compose that way before I saw him do that. It gave me a lot more freedom to explore reharmonization behind the melodies I write.
Usually I only like to spend one day writing a tune. I might change a section or two once I get humans to play it, but it’s usually 95% done when I transfer it from Logic to the musicians. If I hear something in my head that I like, I immediately stop what I’m doing to get it down. That’s why I don’t write very much, but I’ve accumulated a lot over the years—like average maybe three a songs a year, and usually two of them are done on the same day. I’m busy quite honestly with the health stuff and playing a lot, so I haven’t had much time to sit down and write.
What I did do earlier this year was finally write for big band. I’ve always wanted to do it. I took five of my tunes, arranged them for big band, and played them at a show in Boston last March. It was an amazing experience, but difficult for me because I had to spend more than one day on a tune. It was about a week per tune. Honestly I just try to get out of the way of the composition once I’ve made that first spark or discovered whatever the theme is.
TJG: Is there a practice routine you adhere to?
DS: Honestly, I’ve never had a disciplined practice routine. I still dream of doing that at some point … seriously [laughs]. I do have a new mistress—musically speaking, that is. I’ve been practicing on the EWI (electric wind instrument). You can set the fingering to whatever wind instrument you want to play; I have it as a saxophone. It has eight octaves, and you can plug headphones into it and practice wherever you want. I can practice while I’m flying on a plane, I can plug it into MIDI and Logic, and it will both record and transcribe what I’m playing. It’s totally cool, man. Michael Brecker was really into it, and he’s the one that really piqued my interest.
With all four saxophones, I definitely need to warm up, but I don’t feel that I need to shed on those as much. I know how to get my sound and that’s most important. I play a ton of gigs and that’s its own form of practice. I think that if you can hear it and visualize it, then it will clearly come out of your axe. Even if it doesn’t, if I falter somewhere, I think my musicality knows how to properly respond.
Herbie is the king of that. He’ll play something unintentional, and then a new song emerges out of that. I also really like the fresh perspective that I get when I haven’t played my horn in a couple of days. It makes me even more inspired to play for some reason. Keith Jarrett does that: he won’t play for a while leading up to a concert. It may not be the best habit for someone depending on where they are musically, but I’m at the point that I appreciate that time away.
I live in Paterson, NJ, which is a bit chiller than living in the city. Our apartment is very peaceful and I have a loft space where people come out for sessions. This afternoon, I had Evan Francis, an alto player from the Bay Area, and Eli Brueggemann, the musical director for the SNL band, over.
TJG: Are you much of a comedy guy?
DS: Oh, big time! I wouldn’t be here without it [laughs].
TJG: Name some names.
DS: It’s hard not to say George Carlin first, for me. Carlin is my guy. I really love Louis C.K., more modern guys like Jim Jefferies. I love me some Bill Hicks; I have a couple of his albums. Early Eddie Murphy was pretty funny back in the day. I love Joan Rivers. Robin Williams was one of my favorites, too—not necessarily his standup, which is obviously great, but more as a human. He was from the Bay Area and people I knew knew him. Don Rickles is great. I feel like an old fogey for saying that [laughs].
I liked seeing cats like Carlin evolve through the years. His early stand-up was nothing like it was towards the end. He had no limits at the end. I also really love British guys like Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr, and Eddie Izzard. Ricky is one of my heroes; he just doesn’t give a shit. I’m a big atheist, too, so if they can leak that in there, they’ve got me [laughs]. I’m just done at that point.
TJG: Do you see similarities between the jazz and comedy worlds?
DS: Yeah, I feel there is a connection. For both, it’s less about the content and more about how it’s expressed. I mean, composition is important, but it really is about how you express it. The freedom of expression aspect is what makes them linked, I think. I almost study comedy. There’s no way I’ll ever do any comedy; I’ll never have the balls to do it, but I wish I did [laughs].
I hear a lot of comedians say vice-versa: they wish they could hop on the bandstand, and some of them are not half bad, actually. I’ve checked out this conversational series, “Talking Funny,” with Ricky Gervais, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld. I love it; I’ve seen it about three times already. I really see the connection with jazz when they’re getting deep into their process. It’s so awesome.
TJG: Health-wise, how is everything going with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS)?
DS: Our music reflects our lives, and this is a part of my life. It’s hard to say that it’s made life “deeper,” because my life probably would have evolved and become deeper as I got older anyway, but it’s made me appreciate just being able to play music at all—a lot more than I was before. I just don’t take things for granted anymore. I mean every note [laughs]. It better fucking mean something.
Whether it’s health or a bus going out of control, you never know. It’s really seize every moment you got. In terms of what’s happening medically, I’m still on dialysis. It will be five years from the day after this concert coming up since I started. I’m very close to a transplant. It’s a five to seven-year wait for a transplant, and I’m right at five years; I’m number 20 or so on the list. There’s actually a small possibility I might not make the gig if they call me for a transplant next week, which would suck for the gig, but would really be great for my life [laughs].
I’m feeling a little excited as I know that the transplant will come. Just having more of a focus on mortality in general can be stressful, to say the least, but it also adds some depth to the music. I’ve had a chance to travel a lot in the past couple months, and I have many critiques of the health system in this country. It’s really out of control. Things get done, but it’s the bare minimum here, whereas in Finland, for example, it’s like, “We don’t care how much it costs. It’s about you getting the best treatment today for what you need.”
I go in three times a week, so I’m very used to the process at this point and am aware of every little detail that is different. In the U.S., they never feed people with dialysis, ever. It’s not even a thought, whereas it’s a given everywhere else. A lot of it has to do with culture, the capitalist way we run things. Diet is huge. For me, it’s a genetic thing and probably egged on by FSGS; it’s hard to tell because it’s such a rare disease. There are a lot more people on dialysis in this country per capita than in other places and to me that is a sign of diet problems—but that is a whole other tangent. People in Finland are so picky and careful about their diet. Take GMO products, for example—those just don’t exist in Finland. Once my health gets better, I’d really like to travel more. I hadn’t been to Europe in five years since last week, which was great.
TJG: It seems like the community has really stepped up to be there for you with the “Help Dayna Stephens” effort.
DS: Man, the support I’ve gotten is incredible. No one knew for the first two years because I wanted to keep it private. It’s just a hard thing to deal with and have people be aware of, but I’m just overwhelmed with all the support. Not that they feel I need to, but I really feel that there is no way to make it up to them or thank them properly for what they’ve all done.
TJG: You’re also giving back in your own way now with a percentage of your Pledge Music project going to Musicians On Call.
DS: The little I can. Gratitude will really be the tribute to that. I do plan on creating some more video content to help contextualize my challenges as it relates to issues around ObamaCare. I’ve wanted to do that for a while and I really should do it soon. I’ve got a lot to fucking say about this stuff. Things are definitely different with ObamaCare, especially for kidney patients. Before, some people just wouldn’t get a new kidney because they were too poor. If you can’t find a way to pay $1000 per month for anti-rejection meds, can’t prove that you’ll be able to pay that after the transplant, then they won’t give you one. It’s like subtly saying, “Sorry, you have to die because you can’t afford to live.”
TJG: What is up ahead in 2015?
DS: This year I actually wrote for orchestra for the first time. I wrote a tune for Charlie Haden whom I dearly miss about ten years ago: “Haden’s Largo.” I don’t know if we ever played it together, but I did play it for him back in 2002 and then recorded it on my second record. We weren’t necessarily close; we did exchange emails, but we never really found time to play outside of his classroom. I visited him a few times up there. I did see him about a year before he passed. We have a mutual friend that runs the Hillsborough Jazz Festival. She brought me up into his room and we hung out for a while. I had a feeling it might be the last time I saw him, as he wasn’t doing so great.
I love him dearly. He was a guy that just never wasted a note, and it was always about making it as beautiful as you can. Bass is the hardest instrument I think to get an original sound on, and he just achieved it effortlessly. He was really the first bass player that I could recognize as a distinct individual. There is a Kenny Barron record with Haden and Roy Haynes, Wanton Spirit. Amazing. So Taylor Eigsti gave me the opportunity to write two pieces for orchestra this past January and I chose “Haden’s Largo” and “The Duke,” by Dave Brubeck. I’d like to try writing for orchestra again in 2015.
TJG: Is there anything else you want to discuss?
DS: Yeah, I don’t mind calling this music “jazz.” We know the history now. It wasn’t a great term in the beginning, but the guys that created this music and evolved it have stuck with that term for better or worse and have transcended it, making it something new. Therefore, I don’t mind calling it “jazz.” Words in general are pointers towards deeper meaning. It’s the meaning that counts—not the arrow that points to it. If there is any requirement as to what makes something jazz, it just has to be uniquely you (if there is any requirement at all). It’s just disrespectful to imitate someone to a T, but other than that I don’t have any rules as to what jazz is.
Dayna Stephens will perform at this Saturday, September 27th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. This performance features Darrell Green on drums, Dave Robaire on bass, Ben van Gelder on saxophone, and Sam Yahel on piano and Hammond B3. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. First and second sets are each $22 general admission and $12 for Members. Purchase tickets here.