Tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens hit the ground running in 2007 with The Timeless Now, featuring guitarist John Scofield, trombonist Nick Vagenas, pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Eric Harland. In the ensuing 13 years, he suffered hereditary kidney failure, got a transplant from his aunt, weathered a thousand interviews about it, and lived to tell the tale.
Now, he’s tied a bow on that part of his life and career with Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard. The date, which features Street, pianist Aaron Parks, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, encompasses his career from The Timeless Now to 2020’s trio album Liberty. “In a way, I see Right Now! as perhaps the bookend of this chapter in my evolution,” he says in the album’s press release. It’s also a reminder that Stephens isn’t a walking PR narrative; he’s an astonishing jazz musician.
What’s his approach to the horn? Imagine Hank Mobley’s relaxedness and melodicism threaded with Joe Henderson’s conversationality. Whether on “Smoking Gun,” a spin on Monk’s “Evidence”; the wildly swinging “Loosy Goosy,” from 2012’s Today Is Tomorrow; or the supple “Planting Flowers,” which Parks wrote when he was 15, Stephens is superb. His tone is feathery but never lightweight, and he consistently weaves audacious, elusive, and hip lines throughout the two discs.
On “Radio-Active Earworm,” from Today Is Tomorrow, and “Blakonian Groove,” a tribute to drummer Johnathan Blake, Stephens plays the Nyle Steiner Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI). Thanks to that peculiar gadget, the latter tune is beguiling and immersive; the former, however, might leave you checking your watch. Stephens is pushing further into EWI music via the band Pluto Juice; perhaps he’ll work out the kinks and plumb new dimensions. Until then, Right On! is a triumph.