WBGO Radar

Dayna Stephens: Peace

saxophonist dayna stephens

Dayna Stephens’ Peace takes you to the heart of the ballad, then invites you to linger. No one is rushed here. There’s lots to say, but plenty of time to say it.

Saxophonists often hurtle headlong into their sound, picking up momentum as they go. They pack as much concept and execution as possible into a solo, as if they were speed-dating or performing sixty-second Shakespeare.

Stephens takes a different path: he plays from Olympus, then enjoys the view on his way down. From this elevated vantage point, he surveys all of music. Serenity infuses the tone of the musicians around him.

On Peace, those lucky musicians are Brad Mehldau on piano, Julian Lage on guitar, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland. Harland has been with Stephens since his 2007 debut, The Timeless Now, and Lage has also been a fellow traveler for more than a decade.

Grenadier, like Stephens, is also from the Bay area, but the pair met in New York through Mehldau, who approached Stephens to compliment his baritone sax playing after a set at Smalls Jazz Club. The final important ingredient to the project was producer Matt Pierson, who has helped craft the sound of everyone from Mehldau and Josh Redman to Wiliie Nelson and Milton Nascimento.

The session opens with perhaps the ultimate ballad, the underrated but harmonically magnificent “Peace” by Horace Silver. 

Patient exploration of harmony is a constant here, is the careful choice of balanced melodic lines, as on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Zingaro/Retrato Em Branco E Preto,” and two by the master Ennio Moriccone: “Brothers” from the film “The Mission,” which Stephens plays on soprano, and “Deborah’s Theme” from the film “Once Upon A Time In America.” A final cinematic nod, also on soprano, is Astor Piazzola’s tango “Oblivion.”

Distel and Reardon’s “The Good Life” offers a lyric showcase for Lage and Grenadier, while Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke” is a relaxed ensemble swinger.

Other surprising, but equally inspired, choices here are Cory and Cross’s “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” Henry Mancini’s “Two For The Road” and Hudson, Mills and Delange’s “Moonglow,” a duet between Grenadier and Stephens, who used to play the song as a teenage busker in San Francisco.

The track that best captures the spirit of the session is “Body And Soul,” adapted for baritone by Stephens with magnificent brushwork by Harland and Grenadier’s singing bass. It was Coleman Hawkins’ signature tune, and it’s the mature Hawk who Stephens calls to mind: the Hawk of “Picasso” and “Lover Man.”

The album, which was successfully crowdfunded by Stephens through PledgeMusic, will be released by Sunnyside Nov. 4.

   - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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