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Dayna Stephens - Closer Than We Think (Cellar Music)

3 April 2024

Even though his name might not be immediately familiar, saxophonist Dayna Stephens has been a mainstay of American jazz for a good couple of decades, never earning major attention. That’s in part due to his penchant for ignoring flashy moves and commercial aspirations, preferring to get on with making good records and trusting the jazz audience to find them. Closer Than We Think, his first leader album in a few years, is a good example. Backed by a strong band, including drummer Jongkuk Kim, bassist Kanoa Mendenhall, and standout guitarist Emmanuel Michael, Stephens is almost impossibly solid throughout, his smooth, soulful tone a perfect fit for whatever approach a tune takes. He glides effortlessly around the restless rhythms and atmospheric guitar backdrop of David Berkman’s “Blue Poles,” and shuffles comfortably through Julian Lage’s bluesy “Ryland.” Stephens breaks out his EWI for Julian Shore’s bossa nova ballad “Bach Home,” and raises the roof on the late Wayne Shorter’s postbop breakthrough “E.S.P.” No matter what he throws at his band – or they at him – everybody sounds relaxed and prepared, able to handle anything. The combination of the musicians’ confident versatility and Stephens’ affecting tone makes Closer Than We Think irresistible.