Tuesday, May 26, 2020

CD Review: Dayna Stephens Trio - Liberty

Dayna Stephens Trio
(Contagious Music) www.daynastephens.net

Maybe it's my ears, but between "Ran" and "Faith Leap," the first two tracks on Liberty, Eric Harland's drum sound changes. On "Ran" his snare drum cracks and rolls the way one might expect from a recording made at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studios, where this album was made. "Faith Leap" is built on a straight 4/4 beat and the snare has a dry sound, like one that could be sampled from, or for, a more contemporary pop/R&B song. It fits perfectly into the track, though, guiding Ben Street's understated, funky bass line and leader/saxophonist Dana Stephens' highly melodic lines which say a lot without rushing.

Harland returns to a crisp snare crack for "Kwooked Stweet," a contrafact of John Coltrane's "Straight Street" with a theme that lives up to its bent title. Then two tracks later, "The Lost and Found" takes the tempo down slow and Stephens switches from tenor (which he plays on the majority of the album) to baritone, and that dry, spare snare sound returns. Originally appearing on Stephens' debut album, The Timeless Now, it features the saxophonist and Street harmonizing on the melody together rather than working as soloist and accompanist.

These are some of the more minute things that come while examining Liberty at close range (and on different sound systems, for what that's worth). There is plenty to dig into on a more immediate level with the trio's performance as well. Stephens writes bright, ear-tugging melodies that generate some strong, infectious group interplay. The lack of a chordal instrument opens up the space and each player takes the opportunity to branch out, not necessarily with complexity but with dynamics and accents. 

The effects can be liberating, to borrow from the album. "Loosy Goosy" is built on "rhythm changes," but doesn't betray that melodic source when the trio digs into them, even when Stephens and Harland trade some heavy fours. "Tarifa" has Stephens on alto (double-tracked in the theme) for a rhythmic folk melody inspired by the titular locale, on the edge of Spain, just miles from Morocco. While bass and drums vamp, Stephens plays over them, going in several directions which all manage to lock in with his bandmates.

Saxophone trios might not be as common as, say, a piano trio with a horn. But the setting usually brings out a keen awareness in players about how space can be filled or left open. One JD Allen performance made me think he was combining funk and Coltrane. Years ago Sonny Rollins set a gold standard on albums like Way Out West, while Ornette Coleman charted a completely different path in his trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffatt, making close listening paramount to a where the whole composition might go.

Dana Stephens is no newcomer to this music. Liberty is his ninth album as a leader. But at this point in his career, which was sidelined for some time due to a rare kidney disease, his playing reveals greater maturity and depth. In other words, he knows all about Liberty.

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