Dayna Stephens - Gratitude

Label/Year: Contagious Music, 2017

Lineup - Dayna Stephens: reeds; Brad Mehldau: piano; Julian Lage: guitar; Larry Grenadier: bass; Eric Harland: drums.


Dayna Stephens, a top saxophonist and bandleader with a knack for calm post-bop adventures and ballads, translates his gratitude to the world and to himself into a set of nine tunes (only one is original) that compose his eighth album as a leader.
To bring Gratitude to life, Stephens called the same illustrious musicians who had recorded Peace in 2004 - pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Eric Harland.
After Stephens has been diagnosed with a grave disease, he started seeing life in a different manner and this recording transpires appreciation, celebration, and life itself in its most varied musical forms.

Built with warm, amiable tones, “Emilie” is gently Latinized by Mehldau’s thoughtful comping, effortlessly adhering to the rhythmic flow set by Grenadier and Harland. This version of Olivier Manchon's composition lies between a typical jazz standard and the richness of a Jobim’s tune, featuring animated sax-guitar dialogues by the end. 

A soulful approach is reserved for both “In a Garden” and “Amber Is Falling (Red and Yellow)”. While the former, composed by pianist Aaron Parks, is a languorous ballad colored by Grenadier’s enlightened bass solo, the latter, written by vocalist/composer Michelle Amador, starts slowly but becomes rapidly enveloped by a positive energy, glimmering with Stephens and Mehldau’s fluid language and improvisational creativity. Harland is particularly stimulating here, exhibiting his rhythmic potentiality all along the way.

Lage’s “Woodside Waltz” combines pop, jazz, and folk through disciplined harmonic sequences and easy melodies. 
In a sweet melancholy, “We Had a Sister” is a Pat Metheny celebrated song where Stephens plays EWI, pulling out this weird flute-synth sound of the instrument. The saxophonist switches to baritone in the drum-less version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan”, boasting a full, deep timbre over the crystalline voicings liberated by Lage’s electric guitar. 

Stephen’s only original, “The Timbre of Gratitude”, draws a laudable coordination between all the musicians involved, yet it’s “Clouds & Clouds” that creates surprise through its modern trip-hop beats and cyclic synth trajectories saturated in color. On top of it, Stephens calmly formulates unclouded melodies with a pureness of intention.

Balanced and overflowing with awesome musicality, Gratitude will engage jazz fans in general since it lives from tradition and modernity alike. Regardless of which format the group may acquire, the proximity of the musicians and their huge synergistic sensibility lead to a beautiful work in all its subtlety.

         Grade  A-

         Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Emilie ► 03 – Amber Is Falling (Red and Yellow) ► 07 – Isfahan

Dan Cray - Outside In

Dan Cray: piano; Dayna Stephens: tenor saxophone; Clark Sommers: bass; Mark Ferber: drums.


Outside In is the title of the sixth album by the pianist/composer Dan Cray, his second recorded in quartet. 
Regarding the lineup, and in comparison to Cray's previous work, Meridies, the saxophonist Noah Preminger was replaced by Dayna Stephens, while the drummer Mark Ferber and his longtime bassist Clark Sommers keep laying down the foundation.
Favoring a laid-back posture and a liberating spiritual freedom, the recording comprises seven frictionless tunes, which have the power of grabbing us emotionally.

More than just deliver a gentle spirituality, “Small Sir” works as a natural medium for the pianist’s modal expansions and beautiful creativity. By the end, after sincerely felt improvisations by Cray and Sommers, Stephens lets his voice out for the final turnaround, peppered by Ferber’s stalwart drumming.
Where Springs” is an innocuous ballad that boasts a wonderful understanding between the bandleader and Stephens. They whether complement each other’s phrases or fill the available spaces with logic and wisdom. 

Billy Strayhorn’s classic, “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”, is an exceptional piece crafted with an exotic grace and escorted by a sophisticated bass pulse and cultivated drumming. Besides the latter, the album presents two more renditions: Bud Powell’s “Oblivion”, which starts as a rhythmically broken dance and then swings sturdily for Cray’s heartening solo, and the soft and tender “Where Are You”, a 1937 jazz standard composed by Jimmy McHugh.
Also captivating is “OdP (Bird of Paradise)”, a serene waltz whose melody, drawn by Stephen’s attractive language, is more plaintive than dreamy. In contrast, the title track accelerates slightly by adding some more pulse. It maintains a passionate feel, though. 

Serenading the moon and the Earth, Cray frames velvety layouts resorting to reflective moods and a huge sense of unity with the members of his quartet. 
The romanticism will be even greater if you listen to Outside In while drinking a good glass of red wine in the company of your loved one.

         Grade  A-

         Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Small Sir ► 03 – A Flower Is a Lonesome Thing ► 05 – OdP (Bird of Paradise)