There’s a tune called “Clouds” on Gratitude—saxophonist Dayna Stephens’ ninth and latest album, from 2017—that captures his personality well. Serene on the surface, it opens with a breathy tenor line that soon digs deeper, achieving a high level of complexity with juxtaposed layers of synthesizer as Eric Harland’s brushes chatter and comment. When the tune dissipates one is left with a sense of reassurance, like an encouraging hand on one’s shoulder.
Many bandleaders have found the same balance of sophistication and surprise in Stephens’ sound and put it to good use, pianists Kenny Barron, Gerald Clayton, and Taylor Eigsti among them, as well as trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. The New York Times has hailed his “judicious exuberance,” and the credits on Gratitude are a measure of the respect he’s earned among his peers; besides Harland, it features Brad Mehldau, Julian Lage, and Larry Grenadier.