In his 2018 book, Playing Changes,
Nate Chinen argues that the fundamental jazz dialectic of the 1980s and 90s, namely tradition vs. innovation, was ultimately a false choice. Two years later, Dayna Stephens
' Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard
proves the point in the most eloquent way possible.
In many ways, Right Now!
is a traditional undertaking, from the classic horn-and-rhythm-section formation to the set list heavy with tunes taken at a mid-stroll tempo. And nothing cements a link with the iconography of jazz like a recording made at the Village Vanguard
, one of the music's Holy Sepulchers.
On the surface, the 13 compositions, 12 by Stephens, hew close to the harmonically sophisticated but thoroughly legible post-bop language that has been a dominant style in New York jazz for decades. That's true even on the two selections on which Stephens plays Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI); normalizing the use of EWI as a legitimate alternative to acoustic instruments and not as a stunt or provocation is quietly audacious.
Quietly audacious is also an apt description of the band. Aaron Parks
takes post-Herbie Hancock
piano to a thrilling place with sparkling and surprising choices. Parks' "Planting Flowers," written when the pianist was 15, is a stunner. "I think that should be a standard," Stephens says at the conclusion of the performance, and he's right. Ben Street
, who seems to be the Vanguard's house bassist, is strong and solid throughout, whether elegantly walking four or holding down the commanding 5/8 bass line of Stephens hypnotic, Gnawa-like "Tarifa." Street's hookup with Gregory Hutchinson
is strong, clearing room for the drummer to prod, steer and comment on the music with phrases and fills delivered with hair-trigger responsiveness.
As a soloist, Stephens has all the harmonic intel required of a horn player on the competitive New York scene, but he never makes a show of it; his long lines unfold with patient serenity. On soprano, Stephens' approach is snaky and his tone tangy, a contrast to the clear and slightly detached tone of his tenor. Like that of his fellow Californian Mark Turner
, Stephen's tenor sound holds emotion at arm's length, but the close miking on Right Now!
brings it right to your ears, a surprisingly intimate sonic experience.
Overall, the recording ambience is live and evocative, putting you at a front table at the venerable jazz club, an increasingly distant reminder of the deep truths that can be revealed when you're in a small room with musicians at the top of their game.
That's what Dayna Stephens offers on this exhilarating and deeply satisfying set. It's eloquent testimony that the golden age of jazz just might be right now.
CD 1: Smoking Gun; Tarifa; Ran; Contagious; Radio-Active Earworm; Faith Leap; Lesson One. CD 2: Loosy
Goosy; Planting Flowers; JFK International; You Are Me Blues; The Beginning Of An Endless Happy Monday;
Dayna Stephens: saxophones, EWI14000S.