Saxophonist Dayna Stephens has been on the scene for quite a while, but he’s never achieved the prominence his talent merits. A lot of that has been due to health problems; he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease nearly 20 years ago, ultimately requiring a transplant. Still, he’s released eight albums as a leader, beginning with his 2007 debut, The Timeless Now, and leading up to his latest, Gratitude, out now on his own Contagious Music label. (Get it from Amazon.)

Like 2014’s Peace, the band on Gratitude features Brad Mehldau on piano, Julian Lage on guitar, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. The songs are mostly modern compositions, including pieces by Pat Metheny (“We Had a Sister”), pianist Aaron Parks (“In a Garden”), and Lage (“Woodside Waltz”). They also tackle Billy Strayhorn‘s “Isfahan.” Stephens plays three different horns on the album: tenor and baritone saxophones, and EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), a weird-sounding amalgam of saxophone and synthesizer.

Stream Gratitude on Spotify:

Stephens answered questions by phone from San Francisco in late March.

Phil Freeman

You recently came out on the other side of a really serious illness. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, well, it’s a rare disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, probably easier to say FSGS. I don’t know if you know Alonzo Mourning, the basketball player, but it’s the same disease he had. It’s just something that caught up with me. I was diagnosed when I was 19, literally my first day at college, when I was going to Berklee, was when I found out about it, and it finally caught up with me in June of ’09. That was when I started dialysis, and I was on dialysis for about six years, and I finally got a transplant from my aunt, actually. My aunt ended up donating after waiting all that time. That was about a year and a half ago, October 14, 2015. It’s a condition—kidney disease in general, but this condition runs in my family for at least the past three or four generations. I’ve had family members that passed because they were diagnosed before there was even dialysis available. So, it was obviously a long battle and I was stuck, basically not able to tour outside the US for all those years. I was able to manage to leave twice, but as you can imagine, it was five hours three times a week on a dialysis machine was pretty much full-time, or a lengthy part-time job, we’ll say, at least. It was something that made it pretty rough for traveling. The past year and a half, though, now that I’ve been better, it’s been a complete 180. I’ve been gone more than I’ve been home, actually. So I’m just getting back to life, man.

The album art shows that you’ve lost a lot of weight. Is that a result of the transplant, or dietary changes necessitated by rehab, or some combination of factors?
Both, yeah. Before dialysis, I had started going vegan, and I had lost a fair amount of weight up to that point, before I started dialysis. But unfortunately, they call it a renal diet when you’re on dialysis, and it was—basically, the dialysis machine doesn’t exactly mimic an actual kidney, and it doesn’t filter out all of the chemicals in your blood that a kidney would, so my diet was very restricted. I couldn’t really eat things that were high in potassium, which are basically half of the fruit and vegetable family. And also, as a result, my protein levels very depleted because of the machine, so I had to compensate by eating a lot of protein, so going vegan on dialysis was impossible. And also the state of mind, I wasn’t able to maintain my weight. I ended up gaining quite a bit of weight on dialysis, not just because of that but because there was one process I did called peritoneal dialysis, a fluid-based type, where you do it at home but the catch is the fluid adds 2500 calories of sugar per day to your diet. So I gained so much weight those two years I was doing that. So when I got the transplant, my diet opened up, and I literally have been plant-based since. I knew how good I felt before, and since the transplant I literally want to do everything I can do to feel the best I can. I spent seven years feeling not as good as I could, so—yeah, that’s it. I lost close to 90 pounds, depending on if I’m on the road or not. I actually end up losing weight on the road.

How did your weight impact your playing, in terms of mobility, breathing, stuff like that? Do you think you’re playing better since you lost the weight?
Yeah, I’m definitely playing better, but I think just having a functioning kidney and not having to deal with dialysis and not having low energy all the time, that alone helped a lot. I mean, I felt the difference in my playing pretty much immediately. And definitely just in everyday life, of course, dropping—shit, 100 pounds of weight, I’m trying to figure out, that’s like seven or eight bowling balls or something like that, that I was carrying around with me every day. That definitely gives me a lot more stamina also. I think it’s a combination of the two.

As far as your playing, you aren’t a bebop-derived player, I don’t think, but you do a fair number of standards, and pieces from movie soundtracks. Are you more attracted to songs than heads, if that formulation makes sense?
I like it all, man. I like a variety of music and I go back and forth, really. And you know, it may not be as obvious ’cause I do stick a lot of modern harmony techniques into my playing, but I definitely come out of bebop. I mean, that’s where I started, and it’s definitely in there. But where I put it in my playing rhythmically, it may be masked, you know. But it’s definitely something—bebop is deep in my vocabulary.

What would you say is the core of your style as an improviser?
Oh, man, that’s a tough question. That’s for you to answer, man. Let’s put it this way—I like interacting with the musicians I’m playing with, so I’m often basing what I’m playing on a reaction or being complementary to what’s going on at the moment. And also, since playing with Lionel Loueke, I learned a lot more about how important rhythm is to improvising. You’re limited in terms of how much you can play harmonically, but when you start adding all the different rhythms that you can play, that is infinite. It’s pretty damn close to infinite how many different ways you can rhythmically interpret something. So I would say that’s, loosely, if I had to put it in a box, that’s what I’m thinking about, is what I can do rhythmically with the harmonic knowledge that I already have.

You made three albums for Criss Cross, and two for Sunnyside, and now you’ve started your own label. What drove that decision?
Well, I kinda wanted to know the whole process myself. There are some things I wouldn’t want printed in an interview, but I felt that the album Peace could have done a lot better. I was really happy with that record, and I wasn’t as happy with how it was received, I guess. And honestly, the opportunity—and I actually have a lot more energy to do this, although I didn’t realize how much time it would take—but I’m actually up for the challenge at this point in my life. And originally I was just thinking of doing it for my own records, but I’m actually realizing that there are a lot of artists around that I love playing with, that are not quite at the stage where they’re ready to do this all on their own. So I’m offering my help to a couple of players that I know around, too, to help them also.

Talk to me about the business side of it. Did you know everything you needed to know going in, as far as getting distribution and stuff like that?
Well, I asked friends for sure. I know Walter Smith III and Miguel Zenon, for example, are two cats I know and look up to who have done it on their own. I asked them about it, and just asked around—I asked Matt Pierson, he’s obviously done thousands of records at this point. And with distribution, it’s become a lot easier than it was in the past in terms of digital distribution, which seems like it’s starting to take over—not starting to, it’s been taking over for a while. And there’s not as many outlets in terms of physical distribution, but we’re working on that as well. Actually, CDBaby has a great distribution plan that I’m on, so.

So, Gratitude…Are these tracks from the same 2014 session that produced your album Peace, or are they brand new recordings?
All except for the final track, which is called “Clouds.” But yeah. And I did actually, for a few of the tracks, “In a Garden,” “Don’t Mean a Thing at All,” and “We Had a Sister,” I added things over the past year.

You wrote about half the music on each of your Criss Cross albums, and most of the music on That Nepenthetic Place, but there’s only one original on Gratitude, and none on Peace—are you not writing as much these days?
That is definitely not the case. I’m writing quite a bit these days. But for that particular project, we originally were intending to record one record, and we just had so much material that we realized, Wow, we really have two complete records here. And the original idea was to do mostly intimate music, just a whole slew of beautiful songs that I loved and wanted to record at some point. Some were modern, some were standards, some were film scores that Matt Pierson suggested, and we kind of split it up so Peace was more of the standards and film music, and this one is more what I call modern-day standards that folks may not have heard, but I feel could pack the same impact that those standards have.

Do you feel the baritone lends itself to ballads?
I do. To be honest, I feel like the baritone is my favorite horn out of all of them. I call it my Frank Sinatra horn—it’s that range that I love. It’s just a soothing register. But lately I’ve been getting a lot into soprano, playing ballads on soprano. I feel the soprano is the most difficult of all the saxophones for intonation, getting a good sound, and I’ve been working on it quite a bit the past year, trying to do that more.

I have one more horn-based question: the EWI synthesizer—why do you like it? Sell me on this thing, ’cause I’m not sure I get it.
Well, there’s two camps of cats with the EWI. They’re either not into it, or they absolutely love it. I played it last night, actually, with a big band here in San Francisco, and it was the same thing. So my thing is, the possibilities of what that instrument can do—texturally, obviously, it’s not the same. I feel, if you’re comparing it to a saxophone, and you’re wanting to hear a saxophone, you’re not gonna be satisfied. But if you’re just listening to it for what it is, which is not a saxophone…the only similarity is that it’s fingered like a saxophone, but a saxophone doesn’t have an eight-octave range, you can’t play two notes at once, you can’t bend notes, there’s so many things you can’t do on saxophone that you can on EWI. But again, it’s not an acoustic instrument. It’s synth-based, and I design my sounds—actually, I use as a model my sounds…a quality that I like in my saxophone is what I’m going for in the synthesized sound. So there’s a breath, warmth sound that I like in the EWI. And it’s obviously a lot different than a keyboard, because you’re actually controlling the volume with your breath, so to me that gives it a completely new element. I really love playing it in straight-ahead settings, depending on the receptiveness of the players I’m playing with, obviously, ’cause some guys are really not into it. But Kenny Barron was into it. We didn’t get around to recording it on this record we did last week, but…Al Foster is into it, too. You know, it’s like, you don’t like beer as a kid when you first taste it, but you grow up and you kind of begin to appreciate it. To me, just like the baritone, it’s an unsung voice in the jazz genre, if you want to qualify it as that. For baritone and EWI both, I just want to hear more of them. I have a whole list of baritone players I love, and I just wish there were a lot more. And even more so for EWI. Mark Shim plays it, Seamus Blake, and I think that’s almost about it for modern guys recording with it. and everyone who plays it has a unique voice on it, just like they do on saxophone. So I’m just trying…it’s another voice. It gives the music a different pace. It makes you miss the saxophone a little bit, in the middle of a set, when you play EWI. And vice versa, for the EWI guys, they’re missing that when I play the saxophone. So it just gives you a variety of textures to give throughout a performance. And it’s one I like. So I don’t know if I’m selling it to you, but to me it’s my mistress right now. It’s always with me.

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