Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Today is Tomorrow – Dayna Stephens

Stephens starts off his recording with a nice, upper mid-tempo interpretation of “Skylark,” including some pleasing alternative chord changes.  Stephens has a traditional, big, slightly breathy sound that has a velvety quality to it.  To my ear, he sounds a lot like Stan Getz here, and, though his phrasing differs from Getz, he has a similar approach of spinning out one clean, thoughtful line after another.  Pianist Aaron Parks has a similar approach in his solo, favoring smart, single-note lines over chords; his playing strikes me as similar to Brad Mehldau’s, though maybe not as complex.  Starting out with a mid-tempo standard is a bit of an unusual choice to open a recording, but it is a nice invitation to the proceedings.  Stephens’s “Kwooked Stweet” is a good post-bop tune, which has Stephens and trumpeter Michael Rodriguez in unison on the melody.  On this more up-tempo tune, Stephens’s velvety tone leans a bit toward Gary Thomas’s sound, though his phrasing is less dissonant than Thomas’s.  Rodriguez also has a style similar to Stephens’s, and he gets off a good solo, albeit too brief.  The recording at this point sounds like something solidly in the classic Blue Note tradition.  Drummer Donald Edwards finishes the soloing with a churning but controlled performance over an ostinato by Parks and bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa.
“Earworm,” another Stephens composition, features a slow, stately melody, almost a march.  Parks steps out first with an elegant and precise solo.  Then there is some duet improvising between Stephens and guest tenor saxophonist Raffi Garabedian.  Unfortunately, not much happens in their interaction.  The next cut is “De Pois Do Amor, O Vazio” (by R.C. Thomas), and guitarist Julian Lage joins the group, playing with a very Django Reinhardt-type sound.   The melody of this mid-tempo tune is lackluster, but Lage and Stephens both play good solos, Stephens’s full and velvety sound particularly on display. 
Stephens’s “Loosy Goosy” is a neat little bop tune (maybe having the chord changes of Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooch”), with a light-hearted melody.  Parks plays some intelligent, casually off-center lines in his solo.  Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” features the largest configuration of the recording, including both Lage and Rodriguez.  Rodriguez starts things off, playing the tune’s haunting melody with a gorgeous sound, like he’s singing through the horn (maybe he’s on flugelhorn?).  He sounds here like Freddie Hubbard.  In the midst of the tune, one wishes the whole recording had this group, they play so well together.  Lage’s solo is logical and well-developed; his background playing is excellent, too.  The group plays an ostinato while Edwards plays a good solo, before the tune comes to a close.  Even in the context of an overall excellent recording, this performance is a gift.
Stephens’s “Haden’s Largo” is a ballad that begins with some gentle free-form playing from Lage by himself.  Parks’s composition “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” is a straight-ahead, upper mid-tempo, post-bop tune, with just the recording’s basic quartet.  This is classic saxophone-led jazz quartet playing, and Stephens really gets down to business in his solo, stretching out, confidently striding through chorus after chorus, and employing more altissimo than usual.  Parks plays his solo with his typical smart, single-note lines.  “The Elite” is a slow, low-key march, with Edwards employing steady snare drum rolls, and featuring good solos from Parks and Kitagawa--very controlled. 
The recording ends on a more modernistic note with Parks’s “Cartoon Element,” having a Dave Holland-ish melody (a bit like Holland’s “Conference of the Birds”).  Parks’s solo is trippier and employs more chords than usual, and the rhythm section just floats around.  The rhythm is out of time as well for the first part of Stephens’s solo, but then the walking bass and drums kick back in, and Parks lays out for the rest of Stephens’s solo.  Kitagawa then plays a strumming, out-of-time solo (he plays in this spacy mode surprisingly well) before he moves back into his walking style. 
Today is Tomorrow is a really fine recording.  As noted above, Stephens’s playing style strikes me as Getz-ian; there is very little flash, but lots of pure musicality, and Stephens sounds absolutely at ease with his musical identity.  The compatibility of the musicians’ styles is also remarkable.  The playing of Stephens, Parks, Kitagawa, and Edwards is distinctive in its control, elegance, and musicality, and Lage and Rodriguez display similar qualities.  The only elements that don’t fit in perfectly are the unusual choices for opening and closing tunes; “Skylark” is nice, but the recording should have begun with something more up-tempo and assertive, and “Cartoon Element,” the most atypical performance of the recording, would have fit in better somewhere before the end.  Also, Garabedian is the only “guest” who doesn’t offer much to the recording, though that may only be because he doesn’t really have an opportunity to shine.  But these are minor issues.  Today is Tomorrow is a great example of how young musicians can take simple, traditional materials and make something extraordinarily fine and contemporary out of them. 

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