Dayna Stephens knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles. As a standout tenor saxophonist at Alameda High in the mid-1990s, he and a friend took over the jazz ensemble when the school’s band director quit at the beginning of his junior year. Looking for more rigorous musical training, he transferred to Berkeley High his senior year, and quickly became one of the vaunted jazz program’s leading lights. These days he’s one of the most respected saxophonists on the New York scene, and he’s facing a far more daunting challenge than an AWOL teacher.
Diagnosed in with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) at 19, he’s long depended upon dialysis and has been on a kidney transplant wait-list for four years. Beloved by his peers as a person and a player, Stephens is at the center of an ongoing campaign, including a website, Help Dayna Stephens, to raise awareness about FSGS and funds for his medical expenses, which will run some $4,000 a month for anti-rejection medications alone.
On Sunday, Menlo Park-raised piano star Taylor Eigsti performs at Piedmont Piano with his all-star quartet featuring Stephens, bassist Harish Raghaven, and drummer Eric Harland. The Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet, featuring the stellar Richmond-raised drummer Malachi Whitson, will join Eigsti’s band, and all proceeds go toward Stephens’ treatment.
“I think I play better any time I’m playing with Dayna Stephens,” says Eigsti, 28, who has worked extensively with Stephens over the past eight years. “You hear him soloing and then you do something else that he inspired. He’s also one of the most genuine cats. He just doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. Every little bit of his musicality is completely unique.”
I first started listening to Stephens when he was a teenager with a preternaturally mature sound. I wish I could claim I had some special talent for discovering young musicians destined for jazz stardom, but the truth is I just know where to look.
Big burnished tone and dogged work ethic that jazz requires
As a student in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1997 reporting for a short video piece on the Berkeley High School jazz program, I was eager to meet the next player with the talent and drive to join the ranks of Joshua Redman, Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, Craig Handy, and Steven Bernstein. So I pulled aside long-time jazz band director Charles Hamilton and asked him to introduce me to his most promising prospect. That how I met Dayna, who was a sweet-natured senior with a serious bent. He already possessed a big, burnished tone and the dogged work ethic that jazz requires. Following him to jam sessions at Oakland joints where he held his own on the bandstand with players three times his age, it quickly became clear that Stephens had immense potential.
He won a full scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then earned a spot in the rigorous Thelonious Monk Institute. Then, based at the University of Southern California, he auditioned for an imposing panel of masters, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Terence Blanchard, who ran the program.
Since graduating from the two-year Monk Institute program in 2003, Stephens has been making a name for himself in New York through his work with leading figures like the revered trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell, drummer Winard Harper, and pianist Kenny Barron.
“Dayna is a great player,” Barron told me in a conversation several years ago after inviting Stephens to perform with him at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “His understanding of jazz’s language is prodigious. He’s very expressive, with a lot of emotion and feeling in his music, which is something I recognized the first time I heard him.”
A huge, soft, luxuriant sound that’s among the most beautiful in jazz
Rather than rushing into the studio to knock out a quick album, Stephens bided his time releasing his first session under his own name, 2007’s The Timeless Now (CTA Records), at 28. Listeners discovering Stephens through the album will find a player with a huge, soft, luxuriant sound that’s among the most beautiful in jazz. While he’s clearly absorbed a wide array of influences, from Stan Getz and Charlie Rouse to Joe Henderson and Mark Turner, Stephens isn’t beholden to any particular school.
“That’s something I really work on, developing a tone that’s comforting and that still projects,” Stephens says, “A lot of players use an edge to their sound, but I want to project while keeping my sound wide and soft. That’s the challenge.”
The album features an impressive cast, including Eigsti, bassist Ben Street, drummer Eric Harland, and on three tracks guitar star John Scofield. Besides a beautiful, loping version of Ferde Grofé’s “On the Trail” and a sleek arrangement of the standard “But Beautiful,” Stephens supplied all the album’s compositions. Whether offering an ingenious Cubist restructuring of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” (“Smoking Gun”), or the beatific extended lines of “Teeth,” he’s developed an expansive harmonic vocabulary that’s both welcoming and highly personal.
Using harmonics to tell a story
“He’s strongly influenced by Wayne Shorter, but in a young generational sense,” says Harland, a brilliant drummer who recently gave up his longtime spot in the SFJAZZ Collective. “Wayne is the master of harmonic phrases and blending harmonic cycles. He uses harmonics to tell a story. Dayna has really tapped into that. His tunes are so strong and he’s really developing his voice harmonically.”
Just when Stephens seems to come into focus as an artist, he reveals another facet of his already improbably expansive musical gift. He’s performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival with fellow Berkeley High alum Peter Apfelbaum’s New York Hieroglyphics, anchoring the large ensemble with his coruscating baritone saxophone work. He’s also backed trumpeter Roy Hargrove at Yoshi’s playing the acoustic bass. “Bari is probably my favorite of all the axes, it’s an unsung horn,” Stephens says. “I really love the bass too. I took some lessons from Christian McBride and Bob Hurst, and I’m really honored to actually say a couple of things on it now.”
On the tenor, Stephens is speaking his piece with style and eloquence, and his many friends are making sure he continues to contribute to jazz’s ever evolving conversation.
And… don’t miss these gigs:
Speaking of Berkeley High graduates made good, trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s outrageously inventive combo Sex Mob plays at former Oliveto chef Paul Canales’ new Uptown eatery Duende on Wednesday. Featuring saxophonist Briggan Krause, bassist Tony Schurr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen, the band has tackled everything from James Bond themes and Prince to Ellington, James Brown and Nirvana. The quartet’s latest project explores the music of the great Italian film composer Nino Rota.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.