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Before & After: Dayna Stephens

The saxophonist gives thanks to colleagues, mentors, and heroes in this listening session

Dayna Stephens
Dayna Stephens (photo: Alan Nahigian)

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.

“Gratitude” is an accurate description of Stephens’ outlook. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he’s a product of the Berkeley High School jazz program formerly run by trombonist Charles Hamilton, the same program that launched Akinmusire and fellow trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Craig Handy, pianists Michael Wolff and Benny Green, and flutist Elena Pinderhughes. He’s now healthy and active after years of battling a rare kidney disease (diagnosed at 18, on the day he started at Berklee College of Music). Having recently survived a transplant, he maintains a prudent balance of diet, exercise, and positivity.

Stephens, who teaches at Manhattan School of Music, is also starting to step out more as a leader. He held down a week at the Village Vanguard for the first time this past February, but is ambivalent about forming a consistent band of his own: “There are a few guys out there who are able to pull it off—Miguel Zenón, Ambrose—but I haven’t been able to do that myself. There always seems to be one cat that can’t make it. In a way, I’ve gotten used to the fact that every gig can be slightly different and unexpected and spontaneous. I’ve done a few tours in Europe lately with the same band and after three days I’m like, you know…” He shakes his upper body in mock-agitation. “I’m wanting to do something to change it up!”

This was Stephens’ first Before & After, which took place in one of the studios of New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the songs in this Before & After:

1. Vijay Iyer Sextet
“Good on the Ground” (Far from Over, ECM). Iyer, piano; Graham Haynes, cornet; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Mark Shim, tenor saxophone; Stephan Crump, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums. Recorded in 2017.

BEFORE: It’s avant, but with a swing-era vibe—definitely from the last 10 to 20 years. That’s [Mark] Shim. I really like his articulation, very unique, and I like his sound. The timbre of his horn reminds me of Joe Henderson a little. His precision and articulation always impressed me and his rhythmic approach also is pretty awesome. I don’t have that ability personally. I’m definitely a fan of Mark Shim. He’s a fellow EWI player. Excuse me, he would not like that term “EWI”—he calls it “wind controller.” He’s got the electric side happening too. 

I like the energy of this piece. I’m trying to figure out the piano player. It feels like Jason Moran, but I don’t want to say for sure. I really dig who’s on drums too.

AFTER: I did hear this when it first came out, a year or two ago. I remember every song on this recording had its unique vibe, different from the rest of the album. I think I’ve OD’d on Shim. I’ve played with him a couple times and listened to so much of him on record, like his first album [Mind Over Matter] and the Greg Osby album Further Ado. I can’t get enough of him. Mark should be better known. It’s hard to know what the formula is—why someone is well known or not. At least in my musical circles he’s pretty well known.  

2. Ben Webster/Gerry Mulligan
“Sunday” (Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster, Verve). Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophone; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Mel Lewis, drums. Recorded in 1959.

BEFORE: [Immediately] It’s Gerry. Gerry is one of my absolute favorite musicians. People are sometimes surprised to hear that baritone is my favorite out of all the saxophones. I’m trying to think of the tenor player. I didn’t know what era it was in at first, but we’re in the late ’50s or early ’60s.

When I first started playing my dad took me to a record store called Leopold’s right across from UC Berkeley. I remember going through the aisles, looking at the CD covers and saw one with a baritone on it and it was Mulligan’s Carnegie Hall Concert in ’74 with Chet Baker and Ron Carter. That was the first time I heard a bari, and Gerry’s been one of my favorites ever since. I love that combination of bari and tenor—there’s also a Stan Getz and Gerry record I love. But this is Ben Webster. I haven’t heard this in so long, man. 

I’m listening to the rhythm section now—they have such a great feel. The bass reminds me a little bit of Wilbur [Ware] but it’s not quite loose enough and the piano player is a really swinging cat. 

AFTER: I love Ben’s feel—it’s so slippery [laughs]. I’ve always loved this warmer, fluffy sound that Ben and Pres had, and Stan had some of that. That’s the sound I personally gravitate towards. There’s a cat who has this today, Stephen Riley. I absolutely love his sound and it comes from that world. 

[Still listening] Right now Ben is growling. You don’t hear many modern players today who play really mellow and can do the growl thing. James Carter for sure, but it feels different when it’s coming from a cat with that kind of fluffy sound.

3. Michael Brecker
“Original Rays” (Michael Brecker, Impulse!). Brecker, EWI, tenor saxophone; Kenny Kirkland, synthesizer; Pat Metheny, electric guitar; Charlie Haden, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 1987.

BEFORE: [Immediately] You can go to the next track, man. This is definitely Michael Brecker on EWI, Nyle Steiner’s invention, from Michael’s first record. “Original Rays” it is. This is genius stuff. I could sing this whole thing to you but I’ll spare both of us that experience. [Laughs, listens] Wooo, lord! DeJohnette is my favorite living drummer, he has been since I knew who he was. It’s been a good nine to 10 years since I heard this. It’s taking me back to all the places I remember when hearing this record. I’m in the south of Spain right now driving from Cadíz to Tarifa, that’s where I am at the moment.

A lot of people and students ask about the EWI. I always tell them there will never be anyone who will play it as technically proficient as this cat did. Brecker had such a distinct voice and just clearly spent hours on it. [Listens] Wooo! He put so much music into it. In his time here he brought this instrument to life, how it’s related to the saxophone but in its range and textural possibilities it’s a distinct instrument. As someone who plays it, I appreciate how Brecker displayed that to all of us.

How do you choose when and where to bring out the EWI these days?

On the sets I put together, I feel … not cheated, but incomplete if I haven’t played both EWI and saxophone. There’s some gigs where it’s just EWI the whole time and I miss the sax, and the reverse is true. I try to have EWI on at least one song. For the EWI, I don’t tend to pick really fast swing tunes, I don’t feel it lends itself to that situation. I like it mostly as an atmospheric instrument, on slower, more expressive tunes. Also, I think it fits better for me in an acoustic setting because it’s already such a unique instrument that sometimes more electric things around it take away from that.

The technology the EWI uses has evolved quite a bit since Michael started playing it. Is it prone to technical challenges in a live situation?

It depends. I could have a very easy setup with one pedal that adds a little bit of expression and I know it’s always going to work, but lately I’ve been hooking it up to different iOS devices like my iPad, or even through my computer. I have a harmonizer that’s somewhat like the one Brecker’s using here. Sometimes I get it to work on my computer, and other times it can be very glitchy. But it’s such a unique thing I still go for it. My first night at the [Village] Vanguard [in February 2019] I went to play it and literally nothing came out! It was frustrating, to say the least. But I look at it like I do the saxophone: Every time you try something new on the gig, a new mouthpiece or something, it’s really trial and error.

4. Randy Weston
“Portrait of Vivian” (Randy, Bakton; reissued as African Cookbook, Atlantic). Ray Copeland, flugelhorn; Booker Ervin, tenor saxophone; Weston, piano; Vishnu Bill Wood, bass; Lennie McBrowne, drums. Recorded in 1964.

BEFORE: The piano could have been tuned a little. It sounds like Clifford [Jordan]. Beautiful sound. I hear the breath, not quite as warm as Ben Webster or Lester or Charlie Rouse but the way he’s playing, he’s still got this warmth in it. I can feel the maturity in the vibrato. It feels very familiar, almost could be a really late Dex[ter] Gordon but I can’t quite place it. It’s a standard of some sort—I can’t recognize it yet. [As tune ends] I want to hear more. I guess we can’t play it again?

Why not? [Tune replays]

It’s drawing me in—the patience and the vibrato and the attention to detail and the bending of the notes, playing with the intonation. I’m stunned with curiosity of who it is. In terms of sound quality, I think it’s after the ’70s, but I don’t know.

AFTER: ’64? Whoa. Interesting. I’ve not spent enough time with Booker Ervin, but every time I hear him I love him. There was a record he and Junior Cook did together, if I’m not mistaken, and I do have that, but not enough Booker in my collection—and I’ve never heard him in this context, kind of rubato and he’s really out in front. I love it. Yeah, he’s definitely preaching there. I’ve got to dive in more.

5. Walter Smith III
“Contrafact” (Twio, Whirlwind Recordings). Smith, Joshua Redman, tenor saxophones; Christian McBride, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2017.

BEFORE: [Laughs] This is “Contrafact,” it’s Walter and Josh. This is on Twio, if I’m not mistaken. I also recorded this song on my own album with Walter and me playing baritone. I love the interplay between these guys. Walter’s got a slightly fluffier sound. These are two guys that I’ve OD’d on a lot through the years. I remember Walter from when we first got to Berklee together and now they just announced he’s Mr. Head of the Woodwind Department—well deserved. [Listens] Wooo! This is bad stuff. 

“Contrafact” is the name but it’s “Like Someone in Love” with a little twist—one bar at the end is ejected so it’s a 31-bar tune in 5/4, with a crazy-ass melody over it. I love it but it’s a tough one. A little disclosure: I never really felt comfortable with the melody, so what I play on my own record I spontaneously came up with to complement what Walter was playing. 

I have eight saxophone students at MSM right now and I can see that Walter’s a big influence on a lot of them, and meanwhile, Josh is still obviously a big influence for mygeneration. For me, this tune shows Walter playing with our hero—one generation with the next.

I first saw Josh in ’91 or ’92, just after he won the Monk competition. I was 12 and had just started playing saxophone, and a crossing guard at my junior high school saw me with a saxophone and showed me a newspaper article about Josh playing at Yoshi’s. I begged my dad to take me. When I saw him that night, that was when I decided this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

6. Sun Ra
“Possession” (Jazz by Sun Ra, Transition). Art Hoyle, Dave Young, trumpets; Julian Priester, trombone; James Scales, alto saxophone; John Gilmore, tenor saxophone; Pat Patrick, baritone saxophone; Ra, piano; Richard Evans, bass; Robert Barry, drums. Recorded in 1956.

BEFORE: I would say ’50s, maybe even ’40s by the recording quality. I love the arrangement. Wooo! A couple chords sounded … I don’t want to say risqué, but they were unexpected: a couple of strange notes in the top voice. The way it resolved was really nice. I love the tenor player. The sound almost reminds me of Fathead [Newman]. I like the laidback-ness of the articulation and the sense of dynamics. I’m always listening for the dynamics, the volume range. I know this cat. 

AFTER: John Gilmore! That’s who I was going to say. Why didn’t I say that in the first place—uggh! I’d rather plead agnostic than guess the wrong person.  About halfway through that solo his name came to mind because of the phrasing, a little bit like Dex’s sound and I know Gilmore was an influence on Coltrane too. Actually in this situation, you don’t hear that influence as much as I do in others. The context definitely threw me for a loop.

I’ve been going back and listening to some early Sun Ra recently. I’m a huge fan of Charles Davis’ baritone and tenor playing and someone played me a Sun Ra track with two baritones. But man, John Gilmore! He’s another whose sound is on the fence between warm and brighter, but also having a bit of edge so that still cuts through.

7. James Brandon Lewis
“Able Souls Dig Planets” (Days of FreeMan, Okeh). Lewis, tenor saxophone; Jamaaladeen Tacuma, electric bass; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: Wow, this is a really interesting player. I like the rawness of the saxophone sound. I’m trying to say the right words here: they’re not trying to hide where they are. It’s not avant and obscure. It’s definitely coming from a funk or hip-hop place, more modern, post-’70s pop music vibe. I feel like I know the bass player. Someone laughed—they’re having fun.

I personally want to hear it open up a little more. The rest of the record may be more harmonically adventurous, and I love simplicity. I feel like it’s more oriented towards the groove, but I want to hear more rhythmic variation after a while or something texturally different. I like the overall sound and these cats are grooving their asses off.

AFTER: I don’t know who he is, actually, but I can hear that totally, now that you say that [the tune is based on a Digable Planets track “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”], because I was in an R&B group before I got into jazz. This is a cross-crossover [laughs].

I wasn’t really into hip-hop myself growing up, it was on my periphery. I heard about Too Short, I remember him because he’s from Oakland, but not Digital Underground and no Tupac. We knew Boyz II Men, SWV, groups like that. I was a geek as a kid. My sister was really into hip-hop at the time but my grandfather and my father had big influence on my musical taste, and they were into jazz and blues pretty heavily.

The first thing I really got into musically was oldies like Sam Cooke and the Platters and Jackie Wilson, and then my dad bought me Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge and everything else kinda fell off. That’s still my number-one Desert Island Disc, by the way. Now I listen back to some of that stuff and I’m like, wow, I’m realizing what I missed and what I was around and I still have a lot to learn. I’m a jazz geek at heart. [Laughs]

8. Dexter Gordon
“Body and Soul” (Dexter Gordon at Montreux with Junior Mance, Prestige). Gordon, tenor saxophone; Junior Mance, piano; Martin Rivera, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums. Recorded in 1970.

BEFORE: This is a later-period Dex[ter] but it’s still undeniably Dex—the way he’s leaning into the notes, the vibrato at the end of the phrases. This is Trane’s arrangement, more or less, of “Body and Soul.” Man, this feels good. That’s the thing with Dex, it never does not feel good! I don’t know what record this is, but I heard it like 25 years ago. The intonation of the bass is … ehhh.

After his jail period Dex’s sound became a bit more on the brighter side of center. You still feel the breath but with more of an edge, and I love this feel. He’s really on the backside of the beat. I get the sense that if the rhythm section wasn’t careful they might start dragging, if they listen to him too much. He probably made sure that was not going to happen, but that’s what draws you in, that perfect imperfection. I don’t know how else to say it.

Trane was obviously younger than Dex, but I love the fact that Dex was open to hearing what Trane was doing, that he allowed himself to be influenced by someone who was younger than him. We’re all influenced by stuff we hear. Art is ageless, you know.

9. Melissa Aldana
“Obstacles” (Back Home, Word of Mouth Music). Aldana, tenor saxophone; Pablo Menares, bass; Jochen Rueckert, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: Wooo, wooo! I like the texture of this already. I love the bass sound. It’s spontaneous for sure. It’s got me not knowing what’s going to happen next. But I know this drummer. The saxophone I like—it’s a warm sound. My first guess is Jérôme Sabbagh, but I don’t think it’s him. It’s very patient, careful, not too aggressive. Very influenced by Mark Turner. [Listens more]

That’s definitely Melissa. I love Melissa, she’s great. That’s Jochen on drums. I’m playing a gig with him next month. And Pablo, I played a gig with him once. He’s a great bass player.

Melissa’s command of the altissimo register and her sound is a little bit different here. It’s still warm and fluffy. I feel like she’s maybe using a different setup here than I’m used to hearing her. We’ve actually hung out before and messed around with mouthpieces and stuff. I think she’s important to the scene today—as a composer and as a saxophonist.

A lot of us are influenced by Mark Turner but we’ve each taken our own direction with that. Also, some musicians are often influential not only because of their playing, but the whole package: writing, playing, and creating energy—and for all three of those, Melissa’s on the top of her game. She’s a fierce player. She can dig in and get hard but she can also really explore a ballad and show the tender side of the tenor saxophone. I feel a lot of dudes miss that part sometimes. 

10. J.J. Johnson
“In Walked Wayne” (Heroes, Verve). J.J. Johnson, trombone; Wayne Shorter, Dan Faulk, tenor saxophones; Renee Rosnes, piano; Rufus Reid, bass; Victor Lewis, drums. Recorded in 1998.

BEFORE: I love trombone, by the way, and I’m liking the composition. [Listens] There’s no way that’s not Wayne, it’s his sound and his cries. I just don’t know this situation. I have to hear more. [Listens more] This is clearly his post-’80s period, I would venture to say even ’90s, and he’s playing a swing tune. I know it happened on Herbie’s record Gershwin’s World, on “Cotton Tail.” I find it so interesting to hear Wayne in this kind of context.

AFTER: Wow, nice! I never heard J.J. write like this before. I clearly need to hear some more J.J. And I love Renee. I really dig this tune—I like how it goes into swing coming out of a more straight open rhythm at some very spontaneous moments.

I could go on about Wayne for-freaking-ever. He is a huge influence on me. When I first heard Wayne I was in the middle of a very lengthy addiction to Coltrane, and it was Ambrose or Jonathan Finlayson who first played me Speak No Evil, when we were in Amsterdam on a high school trip. I remember playing Wayne tunes during those years but I just wasn’t ready to understand what they were at that point. It wasn’t until I auditioned for the Monk Institute in April of 2001 when I was 23, pretty late in my development, that I met Wayne, and then I saw him live right after that. That started my Wayne addiction and I went through a lot, diving into the Miles stuff in the ’60s, and Weather Report, and then hearing High Life and I was like, “This is one of the most genius records ever recorded—how did I not hear this when it came out?”

11. Claire Daly
“Kluane” (Mary Joyce Project: Nothing to Lose, Daily Bread). Daly, baritone saxophone; Steve Hudson, piano; Mary Ann McSweeney, bass; Peter Grant, drums; Napolean Maddox: human beat box. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: This is a quirky little tune. It’s almost got like a Monk vibe at the beginning, but this is more like … not Monk [laughs]. It’s cool. I’m not knocked out by it but I feel like I know this player. I like the bari sound. It’s actually warmer than I originally thought it was. That could be Nick Brignola.

AFTER: It’s Claire, okay. Yeah, I’ve only played with Claire in a section. I’ve never heard her own thing before. I like the melody and the way the changes are moving. When I say quirky, it’s like a happy, catchy kind of tune, you know what I mean? But when it went into the bridge it had this minor chord for a long time. I like Claire’s sound a lot. I’m trying to remember the geeky saxophone stuff, like the mouthpiece she plays. I think it’s a rubber piece.

12. Charles Hamilton and Beyond
“Love, Always and Forever” (Mr. Hamudah, Global Recording Artists). Ben Ball, soprano saxophone; Mosheh Milón, alto saxophone; Joshi Marshall, tenor saxophone; Mark Wright, trumpet; Hamilton, trombone; Mike Aaberg, keyboards; Miles Perkins, bass; Josh Jones, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: A soulful kind of thing, gospel-y, but that changed right there, it’s a little jazzier. If you were making a set of music this would be a good going-home tune, the set-ender. Hmmm, this is a nice change on the bridge. Interesting chord changes. I’m not sure who the trombone player is, but just by the intonation of some of the chords I would venture to say this is a school situation. If it’s not, I just offended a whole bunch of cats! [Laughs] The trombonist really sounds familiar. 

AFTER: Oh my goodness gracious. I totally missed that, man. Charles rarely played for us. I went out to a couple gigs just to hear him play, and I think he played ’bone with Joe Henderson Big Band when I saw him once but it was a one-chorus blues solo in that situation. I never really got a chance to hear him play a lot but I can hear him now. Wow. I only went to Berkeley my last year of high school so I could be a part of that program. Ambrose and Jonathan Finlayson were freshmen when I was a senior. 

I love what Charles picked out for us to play and I love the freedom that he gave us to create our own thing. That is much more important than people realize. He gave us freedom in our own ensembles to pick what we wanted to play, write our own tunes, and really do our thing versus trying to reach a particular standard. All that while still putting us in competitions where we got our asses spanked sometimes, and letting us realize [in stern teacher voice] you still gotta practice when you get outta here! Getting an A in all the categories of technical proficiency is one thing, but finding a way to relate your music to your own story is really what the end game is. Charles’ big focus was on you being you. Now when I’m teaching at MSM, I’m trying to instill that in my own students. For that I can never thank him enough.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.