Dayna Stephens is a fighter.
Mind you, you could really say that about most artists worth their salt, but it is particularly true in the case of the 38-year-old American jazz saxophonist. Stephens, who will head this way next to join Israeli bassist Tal Gamlieli and his trio on stage at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (December 7, 8 p.m.) as part of this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, had to battle some longterm health issues when he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease.
Thankfully, he is back in the pink following a successful kidney transplant last year.
Stephens once said about his approach to improvisation that: “It often happens by playing unintentional notes. That leads me to somewhere. It’s always trying to come up with something singable.”
Rather than being thrown by the sonic spanner in the works, the reedman believes that unplanned sounds offer an opportunity for a new creative departure.
“That happens all the time,” he declares. “I wouldn’t be who I am without what some people call mistakes, but I call them unintentional.
When you do that, instead of relating to it as a mistake it can become an unintended beautiful moment.”
The late great Miles Davis would certainly have gone along with that mode of thinking. The iconic trumpeter was adept at taking the odd “mistake” committed by one of his sidemen and using it as a springboard for an unplanned line of musical attack.
Stephens first wrapped his young lips around a saxophone mouthpiece at the age of 12, without realizing that he had a genetic advantage over most of his peers. It appeared his maternal granddad, Elbert Bullock, had been a pretty able jazzman himself, but had put his musical endeavor to one side to support his family, working as a senior member of the US prison parole service. Quite a few years down the line, as his grandson began to begin to fathom the mysteries of melody making, Bullock wiped the cobwebs off his own saxophone and gave the youngster some of the benefits of his own experience.
“He never played outside the house, but he showed me lots of things,” Stephens recalls. “I got to hear his sound. It was amazing. It is still the sound I love. He had a lovely warm sound.” It gave the teenager something to aim for. “I could immediately hear that my sound was nothing like that,” says Stephens. “That sound was very influential for me.”
Bullock was a regular visitor to the annual Monterey Jazz Festival, in California, which began life in 1958, and even took his grandson along with him one year. He also played jazz records for Stephens, and there was plenty of encouragement from the youngster’s father too.
“The first album my dad bought me was [saxophone great Sonny Rollins’s 1962 release] The Bridge.
That has my favorite Sonny sound.”
Fired by his elders’ love of the art form, Stephens gradually began to take his horn playing ever more seriously, and must have made decent progress as he was awarded a full scholarship by the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“When I got that, it sort of made it realistic, that I could maybe do this – play music – for the rest of my life,” he notes. “I started relatively late. I was 12 and most of the kids around me started when they were eight or nine. I didn’t know how to read music properly. That was why I decided to go to college, and really pursue it.”
The young man put his all into his burgeoning craft, even gaining entry to the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute where he benefited from the peerless teaching talents of the likes of saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock.
Musical growth notwithstanding, Stephens says it didn’t come easily.
“There are those, including many from Israel, who are so talented that they immediately start working with other musicians. That’s great but I’m not one of those folks.”
The reedman is in good company.
“[Pioneering saxman John] Coltrane wasn’t one of those folks either,” Stephens notes. “Some of us have to work to really get to that point because we don’t have the natural talent to be able to do it that easily.
“But I love it, because improvisation is one of those things that produces results that you don’t expect.
You never get bored with it. You can get bored with the people sometimes,” he adds with a laugh, “but the actual music is never boring.”
Stephens has put out half a dozen CDs to date as leader, as well as contributing to many more as a sideman, and has written compositions for a range of ensembles, including some orchestral pieces. He says his recording career received a helpful shove from this part of the world.
“If it had been left up to me I’d probably still be working on my first record. My ex-wife, who grew up in Haifa, convinced me I was ready and gave me the inspiration to do it.”
The result of that supportive cajoling was The Timeless Now, which came out in 2007 and featured some heavyweight cohorts, such as veteran guitarist John Scofield and irrepressible drummer Eric Harland. The latter was also behind the drum set for Stephens’s most recent outing as leader, Peace, which came out in 2014, with the rest of the stellar lineup including Brad Mehldau on piano, Julian Lage on guitar and Larry Grenadier on bass.
Today, the saxophonist says he is more laid back about creating his own material.
“There is less anxiety about writing a song. I don’t put so much pressure on myself to try to impress someone.”
The far more mature and confident Stephens says he is now happy just to let things take their natural course.
“I am really trying to just get out of the way of what the tune wants to say,” he observes. He says he is very much a work in progress, and he is looking to make his music as user friendly as possible. “I still like to write very simple things that people who don’t understand jazz at all, people listening to jazz for the first time, can enjoy. There are things I have written that are maybe a little avant garde and crazy, but when I put out something I always think that I want my little brother, who is 21 and listens to pop music, and my grandfather, who passed away, I want them both to like what I’ve written. That was my challenge with my first record – my grandfather was alive then, and my little brother was 11 then – I wanted them both to appreciate it. My grandfather was not easy to please but he told me he really liked the record.”
In addition to saxophone, Stephens will also play EWI (electronic wind instrument) in Tel Aviv.
“That’s my new mistress,” he chuckles. “The EWI is capable of so many things that the saxophone can’t even dream of doing. It captures my imagination. I never get bored playing the EWI.”
Safe to say, the audience at the Gamlieli-Stephens gig will be kept suitably enthralled.