|Dayna Stephens. Photo credit: Gulnara Khamatova|
When American saxophonist, bassist & composer DAYNA STEPHENS plays at the 606 Club in Chelsea on Thursday, 16 November as part of the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival, it will be his first UK performance in 17 years. He has just come second (to Noah Preminger) in the Downbeat Critics’ Poll for rising star of the tenor sax. He had a kidney transplant in 2015, following a hugely supportive response from the jazz community. Here he talks about his history, both musical and otherwise, and his most recent recording, “Gratitude”. Interview by Laura Thorne:
Laura Thorne: There may be people in the UK unfamiliar with your playing. Where are you from, what is your background?
Dayna Stephens: I live in Paterson New Jersey close to NYC, but was raised in the SF Bay Area. Ive played sax since middle school and went to Berklee College of Music as well as the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. I now write perform worldwide as well as teaching at Manhattan School of Music in NYC.
LT: You have recorded your most recent album Gratitude with the ultimate kick-ass A Team of players, including Brad Mehldau, Julian Lage, Larry Grenadier, and Eric Harland. How were the sessions?
DS: The sessions were very inspiring for me. I was truly living a dream. Everything went so smoothly that we ended with quite a bit more material than anticipated. Which how this recording came about. We realized soon after recording that we had enough for two recordings. Gratitude is also somewhat of a continuation of Peace, my 2014 release.
LT: Why is it called Gratitude?
DS: My personal Gratitude come in response to the amazing generosity and empathy the jazz community has shown me since my long battle with my health began in 2009.
LT: You’ve mostly recorded songs by other musicians on this album. What’s the story there?
DS: Over the years I have mostly made recording of mostly my compositions, yet so most of what I write comes from the inspiration I get from others I’ve either played with of listened to heavily. I could make at least 20 albums filled with music that fits in that category, these songs are a great representation of that list as a whole, singable melody with compelling harmonic dressings.
LT: You mentioned in earlier interviews that you were first drawn to the saxophone’s sound when hearing your grandfather play (who was a professional musician in the 1950’s). What was it about that experience that captured your imagination, and can you tell us how you developed your own sound?
DS: Well it was the breathy warmth of his sound that captivated me. I can still hear it even though I don’t have a recording of it.
LT: Were there other people or events that had a decisive or significant role in your professional development?
DS: There are so many that come to mind through various different stages in my development. Dann Zinn my sax teacher in high school who instilled in me the importance of finding and embracing ones own voice. Terence Blanchard the was also a great teacher who made me realise the importance of writing, and gave me enough food for thought to last at least 1.5 decades thus far.
LT: You attended Berklee College of Music as well as the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Is the real learning in college or on the road? Or in jam sessions? Or where?
DS: For me it was a combination of all of these things. I think its important to get mileage playing with other people as much as you can. If not with real people then through records or even play along apps as I do to just rehearse a new song. School definitely help you too better communicate your music vision with other musicians, and branching out to other aspects of making music like arranging composing engineering, sound design etc…If one has developed to a professional before they reach college age, perhaps the road is a place where they can further there skills as a leader or sideman. I’ve seen success come from all avenues.
LT: Do you think that musicians in general should think about making their music accessible to the listener, or should they just focus on being as good as they can be?
DS: They should really figure out honestly how much accessibility really means to them. If who they want to be authentically doesn’t seem to be accessible they may need to spend time discovering folks who will appreciate what they create. Luckily the planet is a very big place and it’s connectedness is kind of scary.
LT: You’ll be playing your first London date in is it….. 17 years? at the 606 Club in London as part of the 2017 London Jazz Festival. Tell us about the programme you’ll be performing.
DS: I plan on playing one or two songs from my latest recording Gratitude as well some new songs that I’ve written this year.
LT: What are you looking forward to in the coming year, musically, professionally and/or personally?
DS: I’m planning to record my EWI (electric wind instrument) project with guitarist Gilad Hekselman in the winter, as well as recording music I’ve written for sextet in late winter.