Interview: Dayna Stephens on playing with Tom Harrell and Al Foster

News | Aug, 30th 2016

This Saturday, when saxophonist Dayna Stephens takes the stage at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, he'll be leading an intergeneration band of jazz legends and rising stars. The group, which was organized for the Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival's Lessons from Our Masters series, features legends Tom Harrell on trumpet and Al Foster on drums as well as pianist Aaron Parks and bassist Ben Street. Stephens told us about his motivations for building this particular band, why he chose their particular material, and how a kidney transplant changed his approach to performing.

Jazz at Lincoln Center: What was your concept behind putting together this particular band for the Generations in Jazz Festival, and how did Al Foster and Tom Harrell come to work with you?

Dayna Stephens: I’ve worked with them in the past. It’s been almost 10 years since I’ve worked with Tom—we were both sidemen in a group on a tour of Europe and California in 2007. That’s when I first met him on a musical level and I’ve been wanting to play with him ever since and this finally worked out. And with Al I’ve actually been in his band for the past two or three years and also I wanted to put together a group of guys who I’ve never seen play together before. I wanted to have a fresh combination of younger guys and older guys.

JALC: Is there a theme to your set or how did you choose the songs?

DS: I wanted to really feature some songs that maybe you’ve heard these guys play in the past like a Joe Henderson song. Al played with Joe Henderson a lot during his career so we’re going to play Black Narcissus, for example. But then we’re also going to play tunes that are somewhat based on standards but have more modern, contemporary harmony. It was definitely a process trying to figure out tunes to play with this unique combination of guys. But the bottom line is I wanted to choose tunes that were not going to take too much away from us actually making music. So I didn’t want to bring in something that required a lot of rehearsal time and too much preparation because I know for myself when it’s like that it can take away from actually interacting and making music with the guys you’re playing with. I chose things that would really help us have a strong musical conversation.

JALC: How did you meet Al and Tom?

DS: I met Al when he was playing at the Village Vanguard some years ago and I’ve honestly been a fan of his since I started playing saxophone. I still am a little kid when I’m around him. I just approached him at the Village Vanguard a few years ago. And Tom, I met him back when I was at college in Los Angeles. He was at The Jazz Bakery.

JALC: I read that you recently got a kidney transplant?

DS: Yeah. Actually, I’m coming up on the one-year-anniversary of my transplant in October. But yeah, I waited for 6 years to get a transplant. And I have been able to play a lot more and do a lot more than I was the previous 6 years.

JALC: Has that experience changed your approach to life and performing?

DS: Yeah, I mean my energy levels are back to where they were seven years ago. I’m able to actually tour. I’ve toured more this year than I have literally my whole career. Before I started dialysis I was literally just starting my career so this has been a reboot—a big reset button. I’m feeling a lot better.

JALC: What is an album that has changed your life?

DS: [Laughs] I definitely don’t think it would be fair to narrow it down to one! Honestly, my answer would be different if you asked me tomorrow because there are just so many different ones. But I will say that during this whole surgery and even after, one I’ve been listening to a lot is actually Aaron Parks' album – he’s going to play piano with us at Saturday’s gig. Aaron Parks put out a solo album maybe two years ago now called Arborescence and I listened to that on my way to surgery for the transplant last year. It’s a really peaceful album and something I still listen to quite often.

JALC: Name five musicians, alive or dead, you’d choose to put together in a super group.

DS: I’m not in the band right? I’m just putting together the band? Because I don’t think I’m worthy of being on stage with these people! [Laughs] But let’s say John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, and Herbie Hancock.

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This September, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola will once again host the Generations in Jazz festival, showcasing living legends and up-and-coming stars like Jimmy Heath, Dave Holland, Marilyn Maye, Ben Wendel, Joanne Brackeen, and Joey Alexander.

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Learn more about tenor saxophonist Julian Lee, who'll be hosting Late Night Sessions at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola for the entire month of September.


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