Since the release of his 2007 disc, The Timeless Now (CTA), Dayna Stephens has emerged as one of his generation’s most distinguished modern jazz tenor saxophonists and composers. He hones a sinewy yet supple tone that unfurl poised improvisations with melodic ingenuity. As a composer, Stephens continues to build a multifaceted oeuvre filled with pieces that are cinematic in dynamic scope as they incorporate and suspenseful dialogue and interplay.
In addition to establishing himself as a leading early 21st century jazz voice, Stephens has collaborated with an impressive array of jazz musicians, including pianists Brad Mehldau, Taylor Eigsti, Muhal Richard Abrams, Kenny Barron, Theo Hill, Gerald Clayton and Aaron Parks; drummers Brian Blade, Al Foster, Idris Muhammad, Marvin “Boogaloo” Smith, Eric Harland, Matt Slocum and Justin Brown; trumpeters Roy Hargrove, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Michael Rodriguez; saxophonists Jaleel Shaw, Ben Wendel, Chris Potter, John Ellis and Walter Smith III; bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, Joe Sanders, Linda Oh, Doug Weiss and Larry Grenadier; vocalists Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens and Sachal Vasandani; guitarists Julian Lage, Lage Lund and Charles Altura.
The New York Times heralded Stephens as a “must see,” and wrote, “Everything flows with unusual fluency and makes you feel rewarded,” regarding his improvisational facilities. “When I’m playing, I’m really trying to make something new happen,” explains Stephens about his approach to improvisation. “It often happens by playing unintentional notes. That leads me to somewhere. It’s always trying to come up with something singable.”
Stephens has released five discs as a leader on the CTA, Sunnyside and Criss-Cross labels. Noted producer Matt Pierson shepherd his most recent disc, Peace (Sunnyside, 2014), which featured Mehldau, Lage, Grenadier and Harland. Its follow-up, Gratitude (Sunnyside), showcasing the same lineup, is slated to release in summer 2015. Also slated for 2015, is Reminiscent (Criss Cross), featuring Smith III, Parks and drummer Rodney Green.
In collaboration with childhood friend and pianist Taylor Eigsti, Stephens penned large-scaled compositions for San Francisco’s Peninsula Symphony Orchestra. Stephens also wrote big band charts for the Berklee College of Music and a wide-screen arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke,” for the Oakland East Bay Symphony, which premiered in 2013 at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre for its “Celebration of the Music of Dave Brubeck” concert.
For NPR’s A Blog Supreme, Eigsti said this about Stephens’ compositional acumen: “Dayna has a way of using harmonic subtleties to create unpredictable emotions throughout his compositions and arrangements. The way he composes is genuine, and he puts his personality into all of his tunes. His beautiful energy as a human being comes through his compositions very vividly and honestly.”
Born Aug. 1, 1978 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Stephens grew up in the California Bay Area. While he cites his father, Rodney Stephens, with helping develop his love for music, it’s Elbert Bullock, Stephens’ maternal grandfather, whom he credits as being his first significant music hero. Bullock played the saxophone professionally in the 1950s; and it’s his sound that Stephens often aims to capture. “When I first started playing saxophone, I encouraged [Bullock] to take out his horn for the first time in a while,” Stephens recalls. “The first thing I heard was this big, warm vibrato. That warmth is something that I’ve been chasing after ever since.”
Stephens began playing the saxophone at age 12 and eventually studied under noted saxophonist Dann Zinn, who imparted the wisdom of daily practice. As Stephens progressed, he enrolled in various jazz programs at UC Berkley, Oakland’s Golden Gate Library and the Stanford Jazz Workshop, where he studied under Kenny Barron. Stephens also played at the Berkeley High School’s big band while picking up professional gigs with such local figures as pianist Ed Kelly and trumpeter Khalil Shaheed.
After graduating high school in 1997, Stephens attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship before enrolling in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz (based in Los Angeles), in which he studied with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock. Unfortunately, it was when Stephens first embarked on his college studies that he was diagnosed with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSG), a rare kidney disease. A determined Stephens, nevertheless, soldiered on and excelled at both aforementioned music institutions.
Stephens now resides in Paterson, N.J. and plays a lot in New York City’s jazz scene at such venues as Smalls, The Village Vanguard and the Jazz Standard. He complements his involvement with jazz by teaching at Manhattan’s New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music and at Stanford University. “I get as much out of teaching as I do practicing, because it forces me to put all of my ideas into cohesive sentences that I can be transferred to someone else,” he says.
Photos by Gulnara Khamatova