Saxophonist Dayna Stephens has been busy the last couple of years. His debut album as a leader, The Timeless Now, was released in 2007, and that—plus the usual slew of sideman appearances—was it for five years. But in February 2012, he put out Today is Tomorrow on the Criss Cross label, and two albums have emerged this year—That Nepenthetic Place on Sunnyside in April, and I’ll Take My Chances, also on Criss Cross, in September. Given the state of Stephens’ health, the sudden burst of productivity is understandable. He suffers from a rare kidney disease, and is currently in search of a donor.
Though it was released this spring, That Nepenthetic Place (buy it from Amazon) was actually recorded in 2010. The band includes Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Jaleel Shaw on alto sax, Stephens on tenor, Taylor Eigsti on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and Justin Brown on drums, with Gretchen Parlato singing on one track. I’ll Take My Chances was recorded in January, and features guitarist Charles Altura, Gerald Clayton on piano (and Hammond organ on one track), Sanders on bass, and Bill Stewart on drums, and again, one track features a singer, this time Becca Stevens.
That Nepenthetic Place kicks off with “Dah-Dot Dah,” a rhythmically complex but harmonically welcoming tune on which Stephens naturally takes the first solo. Over subtly choppy beats from Brown, he murmurs and meanders, his phrases thoughtful but somehow preoccupied and never quite resolving in an expected way. It’s like he’s graciously inviting people into a room, and Akinmusire, who’s up next, slides into the space with a much more fierce and energetic demeanor, spitting out piercing high notes and only reluctantly teaming up with the other horns for restatement of the theme before Eigsti takes a turn in the spotlight which fades the piece out. The second track, “Full Circle,” is a shimmering ballad that allows Stephens to build up a surprising amount of intensity as it goes on—by the end of his solo, he’s in Wayne Shorter-circa-1965 territory, with the rhythm section churning and clattering behind him, and in a reversal of “Dah-Dot Dah,” it’s Akinmusire who brings things back down to earth with a full-toned but mellow soliloquy of his own.