Dayna Stephens: Peace

Since his debut as a leader, 2007’s The Timeless Now, saxophonist Dayna Stephens has surrounded himself with exceptional players, and his good taste continues on Peace, his fifth album. Joining Stephens here are pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland. There’s something different about this one though: Whereas Stephens often pursued rhythmically intricate, edgy postbop on his previous releases, Peace, as its title suggests, is a calmer, more introspective session. Consisting entirely of non-original ballads, the new release is where Stephens catches his breath.

He’s picked the ideal crew for that. Mehldau and Lage are masterful balladeers and gracious accompanists equally capable of biding their time as soloists. The Horace Silver-penned title track sets the tone: Languid but glowing, it launches with Stephens blowing breathy, Mehldau filling in spaces gingerly, Harland brushing breezily. It stays that way for a good couple of minutes until Mehldau finds an opening; Stephens, not one to spoil the mood, takes the cue and maintains the hush. “Body and Soul,” similarly, relies on space and air to create emotional depth; when the others leave Grenadier and Harland to themselves, the bassist for a moment seems tempted to kick up some dust, but Harland keeps him in check.

While Lage doesn’t take the floor as often as Mehldau or the leader, the guitarist makes the most of his moments. On Jobim’s “Zingaro” and the following “The Good Life,” Lage’s harmonies glisten, and his solo on Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” is an example of perfection in concision.

As laudable as the team players are, it’s ultimately Stephens who holds it all together. Making ample use of baritone on several tracks, he finds a place where serenity, soulfulness and sincerity coexist peacefully, succeeding along the way in expanding our notion of what he does and who he is.