Dayna Stephens is happy to be here. It's not just in the obvious "Hello Clevelaaaand!" sense you'd get from any visiting performer saying hello to a crowd (not that that's a bad thing), but a heartfelt conviction. After a battle with a rare kidney disease and a life-saving donation from his aunt, the New Jersey saxophonist is acutely aware of how great it is to still be present and able to make beautiful music. His picturesque eighth album is meant to "[serve] as an expression of that deep-seated gratitude," and Gratitude indeed shares the love in a way both hearty and humble.
Stephens mostly borrows others' material here and filters it all through his own influencestimeless balladry, classic swing and simple heartland folk. One key factor was to choose songs that had stuck with him and melodies that lodged in his head, and his clear affection for the pieces helps them amiably do the same for the listener too. Sweetly appealing melodies and lush solos spill from his horn as easily as a pleasant summer breeze. Mostly he sticks with a soft-flowing tenor, briefly switching to electric wind instrument (EWI) to give an appropriate synth-like sound to a Pat Metheny ballad, or smooth chocolaty baritone for a lovely drumless treatment of Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan."
In spots the music also reflects the doubt and ambivalence involved in his experiences, but the overall tone refuses to be dragged too far down. In the loping opener "Emilie" he's even moved to some sudden happy birdlike calls during the course of trading solos with Brad Mehldau's piano. The lineup of players (or "fellow sound designers," as Stephens calls them) remains intact from his previous album Peace (Sunnyside, 2014)Julian Lage (guitar), Larry Grenadier (bass) and Eric Harland (drums) round it out, serving as a group of equals rather than a supporting cast. Each is happy to add distinct shadings in their feature spots, then sit back and contribute unobtrusively to the whole for the remainder.
The charming Americana feel gets a dash of soul in Lage's "Woodside Waltz," which eloquently evokes the redwood forests around the San Francisco Bay. Mehldau switched to a tack piano which had apparently been sitting neglected in the studio, and rather than getting it into 'proper' shape, the band tuned their own instruments down to match. It's a great idea to suit the piece's rough-edged charm and makes for one of the album's warmest highlights. The leader's lone original "The Timbre of Gratitude" is a short and sweet centerpiece to sum up the tone; Stephens and Lage seamlessly trade off counterpoints or amble in lockstep, always supporting the theme of warm positivity.
Once things float to a dreamy close with a medley of two interestingly different pieces titled "Clouds," Gratitude leaves a lasting impression swimming in honest emotion and beautiful sounds. Dayna Stephens' journey thankfully isn't over, and the results are something we can all be grateful for as well.
Emilie; In a Garden; Amber Is Falling (Red and Yellow); Woodside Waltz; We Had a
Sister; The Timbre of Gratitude; Isfahan; Don't Mean a Thing at All; Clouds & Clouds.
Dayna Stephens: tenor & baritone saxophones, EWI, synthesizer, bass (9); Julian
Lage: guitar; Brad Mehldau: piano, tack piano (4); Larry Grenadier: bass; Eric
Harland: drums and cymbals.
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