When it all comes together: Dayna Stephens – “That Nepenthetic Place”


Dayna Stephens - "That Nepenthetic Place"There are few things quite as rewarding as following a musician’s career, witness their development as they forge their particular sound, and then, one day, hear it all wondrously coalesce into a recorded piece of excellence.  That’s what has taken place with the new release from saxophonist Dayna Stephens, titled A Nepenthetic Place.

Today, firmly situated in post-bop territory, Stephens creates the kind of modern jazz that is just as home in the stereos of old-school and new-school Jazz fans alike.  But his first two albums, while both solid in their own right, didn’t want to sit still.  His debut, the 2007 release Timeless Now, flitted about between a rock influenced nu-jazz, a fully-centered post bop, and some modern R&B stylings.  It presented different facets of Stephen’s music, and made for a fine introduction.  2012’s Today is Tomorrow was crafted with harder edges and sharper angles, accentuated nicely by the guitar of Julian Lage, but it flipped between an updated hard bop sound and the type of post-bop jazz that fully embraces avant-garde constructs.  The ideas presented on Today is Tomorrow are raw… a trait that lets creativity present itself without inhibition.  It’s the kind of thing that makes a listener look forward to what comes next.

His third album as session leader, Stephens brings back some familiar faces while adding some new ones to the mix.  Most notable is the absence of a guitar from the line-up, a decision which frees up the music to no small effect, while adding an extra saxophone to the line-up brings a harmonic element that didn’t quite manifest in prior recordings.  Ultimately, the symbiosis between group members has to be counted among the top reasons for this album’s success.  This music possesses a unity that makes it so much bigger than an accounting of its individual elements.

Your album personnel: Dayna Stephens (tenor sax), Taylor Eigsti (piano), Joe Sanders (bass), Justin Brown (drums), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Jaleel Shaw (alto sax), and guest: Gretchen Parlato (vocals).

This is an album with a strong presence and fast on its feet, and even on tracks like “American Tycoon” and “A Walk in the Park,” in which the ensemble lays off the gas pedal a bit, those songs possess an inner intensity that doesn’t go unnoticed.  Most tracks have dense centers of gravity, but there are moments, like on “Dr. Wong’s Bird Song,” when the track becomes momentarily diffuse and free of structure.  This has the effect of enhancing the music’s overall form.

The harmonic teamwork between Stephens, Akinmusire and Shaw (on saxophones & trumpet) is terrifically uplifting, and when Eigsti’s piano flutters about their flight pattern, it provides some necessary edge to balance the harmonic warmth.  On drums, Brown utilizes a whirlwind approach to build the intensity of the music while also corralling musicians who threaten to stray too far from the center of things.  Sanders brings a sense of rhythmic reliability to the affair, but there are some nifty moments when he sneaks the bass outside and runs wild.  Parlato has a nice guest spot on “But Beautiful,” adding a hint of delicacy that the ensemble can’t help but emulate.

Some particularly memorable sections:

The warm flush of trumpet and sax on the opening of “Full Circle,” and then later, as drums and piano maintain a steady chatter as balance.

The gentle sway of “Nepenthetic,” and the way its unhurried expressiveness lets the emotions come to a gradual boil.

“Common Occurrences” and the rendition of Coltrane’s “Impressions” provide the musicians the opportunity to breathe plenty of fire and fury into their solos.

The deep resonance of bass and bright notes of piano on “A Walk in the Park,” and how a pleasant demeanor, briefly, lets loose with wild expressiveness.

But that’s just a few, on an album that is filled with memorable tunes.  One of the stronger releases, thus far, in 2013, and an impressive step up in Stephens’ recording career.

Released on the Sunnyside Records label.

Jazz from the Bay Area of California.

Available at Bandcamp.  Available at eMusic.  Available at Amazon: CD | MP3


Erik Jekabson - "Anti-Mass"Worth noting that Stephens brings his tenor sax to Erik Jekabson‘s Anti-Mass, which was slotted as the Bird is the Worm #8 best album of 2012.  Review here.