This Thursday, December 15th, The Jazz Gallery caps off its final edition of the 2016 Mentoring Series with a performance by saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Patrick Bartley. Over the course of three performances, the pair have explored their own original compositions, as well as different instrumental possibilities including the clarinet and EWI. We caught up with Bartley by phone to hear about his experience working with Stephens thus far; our conversation is below.
The Jazz Gallery: Had you worked with Dayna before this experience?
Patrick Bartley: Yes, actually. I’m a big fan of Dayna. He’s been one of my favorite saxophonists that I’ve heard since coming to New York in 2011. But the reason this all came about was because I met him on this big band gig with trumpeter Etienne Charles that I had at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola a year and a half ago. Etienne called me to play second tenor in the band and Dayna was playing first tenor, so I met him on that gig. It was really great because I was able to connect with him on this mutual level. We both really like playing EWI—the electronic wind instrument—and so that was a bridge that brought out this inner geek in both of us. We talked about that for a good hour or so. I feel that getting to know him has helped me learn how to play his music. I’m not just learning the notes, but seeing his personality through the writing.
TJG: What kind of stuff have you been working with Dayna for this project?
PB: We’ve been exploring some of his new music, but he’s also given me the opportunity to bring in some of my own music. Most of Dayna’s pieces haven’t been recorded or performed before. This is exciting for me because I’m piloting an inaugural element in these pieces. Some of the pieces he’s been playing in groups with trumpeters, like Philip Dizack. Some of his tunes are family-inspired, which is really cool—he has one tune dedicated to his uncle Junior.That kind of personal approach is really resonant for me. There is this one tune that I’ve brought in called “Blues for the Living.” I recorded it on an album in 2013 called The Red Planet and it’s a tribute to those who are alive and those who are suffering, who are just living on this planet, as opposed to just mourning for those who have gone. It’s a celebration of life, but also an acknowledgment of what people have to go through on a daily basis and the experience of being able to pass that down through family. This kind of writing makes me think of Dayna because of all that he has been through and getting the new kidney last year, which is incredible, and getting to push on. I feel we have a meaningful set of music that’s also quite fun.
I was a little hesitant at first to bring in my own material because I had never played with the guys in the rhythm section before. I didn’t know what they would like or what they would be interested in playing or how the vibe would work out. But I ended up bringing in two of my songs, and one has been working out really well so far.
We’ve really just been playing, hanging out, talking to each other. I’ve tried to absorb the band’s vibe, and hopefully they’d be saying the same thing about me. It’s a great learning process seeing how these guys naturally operate in their environment because it’s just another gig for them. Since the rhythm section and Dayna have known each other for a long time, it’s really interesting to see how they play and how comfortable they are with each other. I’m trying to tap into that and grow within their energy.
TJG: How has the rehearsal process been?
PB: We actually haven’t gotten to rehearse that much. The groups have been a little different every show because everyone’s an in-demand musician in New York, especially the rhythm section. Each time it seems that the new person in the band has to listen to the chart, look at the sheet music and then go. The guys have been able to fool the audience at every single show. It’s incredible. We got to do a good rehearsal the day of our first show, and the recordings we made that day have been helpful in teaching the music to the new players. I think it’s a testament to Dayna’s music that it really works in this context. It’s music with a cyclical form that gets more comfortable the more you play it on stage. Even though there may only be 12 to 36 bars of material, it’s rich enough that you can keep cycling through it for ten minutes and it doesn’t get old. Every 40-second cycle through the form, you’re learning something new about the musicians on stage. This is what’s really cool to me and what keeps the music pushing forward.
TJG: What’s been the most exciting thing that you’ve experienced so far with Dayna?
PB: Dayna’s not only one of my favorite saxophonists, but bassist Ben Street has been on some of my favorite records, as well as Johnathan Blake. I’m so excited just to play with these guys. I work mostly at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and in the Jazz at Lincoln Center scene playing the music of this person or that person—mostly older music. It’s great, but I don’t usually get a chance to explore a lot of modern music and what’s going on today and this is a great opportunity for me to get out and experience that, especially with musicians who are so well-versed in those styles and really good at creating active music. It’s really refreshing to operate in that field and get a sense of what the foreseeable future in jazz is.
TJG: Who have been some of your other mentors on your musical journey so far?
PB: I’ve found music mentors in unexpected places, but originally I wanted to be a visual artist. That has been a recurring theme throughout my experience with music and how I want to play it. After I started playing the clarinet as a kid, I had various teachers come up to me and say that I was getting good at that and that I should pursue it. I wouldn’t say I switched from doing visual art to music then, but it definitely was the beginning of a transition. I haven’t done as much visual art lately, but it definitely has affected how I think about music.
As soon as started getting more serious about music, I started seeking out teachers who could help me understand music more. I actually had a social studies teacher in middle school who introduced me to the music of Wynton Marsalis. She burned me a CD with all this music by jazz greats on it. She helped expose me to all of this great music. I also had great band directors in middle school and high school. I never actually had private lessons on the saxophone growing up, but the mentors I had gave me the environment to explore music with other people who wanted to create the same thing.
Another mentor who came from an unexpected place was a guy named Geno Jamison. He helped me a lot because he put me in my first ever real band. I was in 7th or 8th grade and it was a soul/funk kind of band. We didn’t have any sheet music. There would be songs that we seemingly worked on for years to get it right.
The Jazz Gallery’s Mentoring Series, volume 3, concludes with a performance at the Gallery by saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Patrick Bartley on Thursday, December 15th, 2016. Stephens & Bartley will be joined by Manuel Schmiedel on piano, Ben Street on bass, and Jonathan Pinson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members of the Gallery and The Jazz Museum of Harlem). Purchase tickets here.