The narrative seems as clear-cut as an elevator pitch: Rising, still-young saxophonist felled by an illness that required extensive dialysis is now blowing with a clean bill of health. And for the first time in nine discs as a leader, he’s playing in a trio without a harmonic instrument. Medically and musically, it adds up to Liberty.
But what makes Dayna Stephens such a compelling musician (along with his steadfast refusal to succumb to his many travails) is that he resists easy narratives. Like Joe Henderson, his phrases come at you with unpredictable rhythms and harmonies. Like Stan Getz, the restraint of his balladry is deceptively powerful. Neither of those characteristics is especially conducive to a free date, but Stephens isn’t engaged with that kind of liberty. Instead, he’s culled the terrain of instruments, brightened the contrast, and let you see the trees for the forest.
One of Stephens’ best-known compositions, “The Lost and Found,” was memorably recorded by Gretchen Parlato, and appeared on the saxophonist’s 2007 debut The Timeless Now, with the same personnel as Liberty—Eric Harland on drums, Ben Street on bass—plus pianist Taylor Eigsti. On this trio rendition, Stephens shortens the intro, swaps out his tenor for baritone, and gooses the tempo slightly. But what lingers here is the intimacy, the spareness, and Street’s beautiful solo.
In a similar vein, Stephens reprises “Kwooked Stweet,” his variation of Coltrane’s “Straight Street” that he first recorded in a sextet on his 2012 disc Today Is Tomorrow. This version better personalizes his affinity for Trane’s joyful lyricism and makes a delightful companion to the preceding “Faith Leap,” rooted in Harland’s tweak of the signature riff on “Giant Steps” while taken at a tempo that lopes instead of sprints.
Stephens’ use of alto sax with some soprano dubbing makes “Tarifa” an ear-catching outlier, its “exotic” tone a reminiscence of the first time he laid eyes on Africa from the Spanish shore. Other pieces like “Ran” and “Wil’s Way,” previously recorded with larger ensembles, are reconsidered to make Stephens the primary voice on his own songs. It all dispels any lingering reservations one may have had about his niche in the jazz firmament.
Dayna Stephens sits down for the Before & After challenge.