Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.
Here’s another short solo from one of today’s coolest saxophonists – Dayna Stephens. I stumbled onto Dayna in college when I started looking into other impressive young players who came out of NYC via California (Taylor Eigsti, Gretchen Parlato, et al). His sound was the very first thing that struck me; it was the model of the sound I had been trying to craft on my own. The more I listened to him, the more I really appreciated the musicality of his lines. Dayna doesn’t play like anyone else on the saxophone. He has his influences, like anyone else, but his vocabulary is purely of his own logic. He accompanies vocalist Lauren Desberg on her five-song record “Sideways” from 2012, giving a great tutorial on improvisation steeped in music, rather than technique.
The solo chorus takes places over a three-chord vamp, with Dayna trading eights with Taylor Eigsti. It’s an easy warmup for Dayna: he stays within D minor pentatonic for the first couple of measures, gets into a D dorian scalar patten for a couple of measures before a brief slip into chromatic harmony. In the next eight measures, Dayna dovetails on Taylor’s last phrase, seeming to ignore harmony in favor of melodic shape. As he goes on, he recaptures the simple melodic material from his first eight measures, incorporating some of his melodic shape from the first four measures of this eight. In his final eight measures, Dayna uses his most exciting harmonic material of the solo (E augmented triad with F added), favoring a wash of harmonic color, rather than accuracy in melody. As he closes, he uses a false-fingering technique (from his second eight) and one more flash of harmonic color.
The thrill in Dayna’s solo comes from his seeming abandonment of typical melody/harmony relationships over a straight-ahead groove. There really isn’t a lot to the melodies or harmonies he uses; indeed, most of the melodies aren’t what I would call lyrical, and the harmony he uses is largely D dorian. That said, his musical shapes carry this solo. Within the overarching rise and fall of the lines themselves, Dayna has jagged edges within the lines. If we were to graph the shapes, we could do so on many axes: pitch, dynamics, level of melodic dissonance, level of rhythmic dissonance, excitement…the list goes on. I would be interested to hear Dayna talk about his improvisational approach, because it seems like licks, melody, and harmony are very much in the background of his soloing.
I tell most of my students that sound musical integrity can save a poorly executed technical passage. Likewise, something extremely technical without musical integrity can be completely unsuccessful, even if flawless. In this solo, Dayna manages to achieve both sound musical integrity and flawless technical execution.
PS. If you like Dayna’s music, and you’d like to support him, please consider helping him to stay healthy. No one should have to fight alone, and all help is appreciated: http://helpdaynastephens.org