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.
The album contains only two non-originals among its 10 tracks—a version of “But Beautiful,” on which Parlato sings, and a nearly 12-minute take on John Coltrane‘s “Impressions.” I’m not a fan of jazz vocals, period, and Parlato’s almost cartoonishly breathy performance here (she sounds like she just ran up six flights of stairs to the studio) does nothing to win me over. Stephens responds to her gasping treatment of the song by playing in an extremely breathy, fuzzy manner himself. Sanders and Brown throb loudly behind them, in an almost Latin manner at times, as Eigsti decorates the margins. “Impressions,” on the other hand, is a thundering, epic journey. Mercifully, Stephens doesn’t make the mistake of trading his tenor for a soprano, and while he doesn’t attempt to imitate Coltrane’s phrasing, around the six-and-a-half minute mark, he does get into some of the wild territory the late sax titan was exploring in his final years. But it’s a short digression, and he’s back to melodic blowing soon enough.
That Nepenthetic Place isn’t a perfect album—it’s overlong, and there’s that vocal track—but it’s got strong melodies, empathetic interplay between the front line and the rhythm section, and quality solos from everyone. It’s too bad the music took three years to see the light of day, but it’s out there now, and well worth your time.
I’ll Take My Chances (buy it from Amazon) is the more subdued of Stephens’ two 2013 releases. With only one horn, and three chordal instruments—guitar, piano and bass—behind him, the music has a drifting, vaporous feel that drummer Stewart doesn’t do enough to drive away. Clayton is a more forceful pianist than Eigsti, though, and his solos have gravitas as well as prettiness. As always, the majority of the compositions belong to the leader, though there’s a version of Duke Ellington‘s “Prelude to a Kiss” (the track on which Becca Stevens sings) and three others composed by pianists—Aaron Parks‘ “Adrift” and two versions of Brad Mehldau‘s “Unrequited,” closing out what would be each side of the album if it were released on vinyl (actually, they’d have to appear on Sides B and D, as I’ll Take My Chances is 73 minutes long). Stevens has a clearer singing voice than Parlato, but “Prelude to a Kiss” is no more satisfying than “But Beautiful” was; she reaches for a few notes she can’t hit, and strays too far from the melody, blurring the line between improvisation and making it up as you go.
The most interesting track on the record, though, is “Dirty,” on which Clayton switches to organ, and Stephens picks up the baritone sax. It’s not a raunchy, bar-walking track, despite its title—it’s weirder and more abstract than that. Stewart’s drums are mixed like trash cans, and Clayton’s organ playing has the exploratory quality of Larry Young‘s late ’60s work on albums like Of Love and Peace and Unity. Altura’s guitar solo has extra bite, too, approaching Grant Green levels of sting at times.
The two versions of “Unrequited,” on the other hand, provide some of the hardest-swinging moments on the album. The rhythm has a bass-driven bounce that inspires everyone else in the band; the music is somehow gentle and emphatic at the same time. As a divider between halves, and a conclusion, the piece works superbly well. Overall, I’ll Take My Chances is a more consistent and stronger release than That Nepenthetic Place, and if you’re only going to hear one, this should be it. But why decide?