Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: That Nepenthetic Place - Dayna Stephens

Personnel: Dayna Stephens: tenor saxophone; Taylor Eigsti: piano; Joe Sanders: bass; Justin Brown: drums; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Jaleel Shaw: alto saxophone; Gretchen Parlato: voice.

“Dah-Dot Da” begins with a strident, mid-tempo, post-bop theme with trumpet, tenor, and alto in harmony.  The theme eventually mellows out and leads into Stephens’s solo, which he carefully develops with his warm, liquid tone.  Shaw’s alto solo starts out with tentative phrases but evolves into a series of longer, faster lines.  Akinmusire employs his bright, commanding sound to play a solo that combines power and emotion, the rhythm section digging in behind him.  The cut closes on Eigsti’s improvised musings.

“Full Circle” is a quieter tune taken at a strolling mid-tempo, with the three horns in unison on the pretty theme.  Eigsti starts things off with a solo with shimmering, flowing lines.  Stephens’s tone in his solo sounds a lot like Joe Henderson, powerful and gentle at the same time.  Akinmusire is more thoughtful and meditative in his solo here, though he sprinkles in some fiery phrases as well.

“Nepenthetic” has a quiet, out-of-tempo start, with Stephens playing some breathy, gentle phrases.  Then the trumpet enters and tenor and trumpet briefly play in unison.  Then Sanders plays an arco bass line in unison with piano and the horns join in with a slow-moving theme.  Stephens then breaks out with an emotional, melancholy solo against a lower tempo background.  Then the horns form a background and Stephens joins them to close out the piece.

On “Common Occurrences” it’s just tenor and rhythm section, and Stephens and Eigsti play an intricate line in unison with an up-tempo background.  Stephens plays a straight-ahead, driving solo.  Eigsti starts his solo tentatively, but it soon kicks into a strong groove, and he fires off one fast, elegant phrase after another.  Stephens and Eigsti repeat the theme, and Brown solos briefly before the cut closes. 

“A Walk in the Parc” starts with pretty chords somewhat like a Steely Dan tune, and then Stephens plays a light, pretty theme.  Eigsti solos on piano with subtle electric piano chords in the background.  Stephens plays a thoughtful solo and even distorts his sound for a while.  Brown solos again against bass and electric piano.  Stephens restates the theme to close the piece.  This cut is a surprising and nice change of the recording’s pace thus far.

Parlato adds a new color to the recording with van Heusen’s “But Beautiful,” singing the pretty lyrics in a breathy, conversational, and seductive style.  Stephens then plays a brief, breathy solo against an atmospheric background, then Eigsti takes the spotlight with a delicate solo.  Parlato sings again and Stephens briefly improvises to close the tune.  The feeling of this cut is more of a piano and vocals performance with some tenor sax added in; Stephens plays more of a supporting role.

“Wink Wink” starts out with Stephens playing long notes in unison with Parlato (singing wordlessly), while Akinmusire and Shaw play a complex theme in unison over the tenor and voice.  Stephens then plays a graceful solo against a dense background of piano, electric piano, bass, and drums.  Parlato then adds some wordless, vocal impovisation, the background sounding a bit like Chick Corea backing Flora Purim on Light as a Feather.  Stephens returns, playing some acrobatic runs, then the other group members join in to play the theme to close out the cut. 

“American Typhoon” starts with a slow, loose intro from the rhythm section, with Eigsti mainly setting the tone.  Stephens and Akinmusire (on muted trumpet) then play a slow tone poem in unison, with Brown adding colorful flourishes instead of a pulse, Eigsti providing lush chords and arpeggios.  Stephens creates his own tone poem with his solo, against loose accompaniment from the rhythm players.  Eigsti then takes center stage, playing a chord-heavy, dramatic acoustic piano solo.  Stephens and Akinmusire replay the theme, there’s a bit more loose improvising from Stephens and the rhythm section, and the cut ends with some piano playing (I think) that sounds like hammered dulcimer, with hints of the theme from Coltrane’s “Impressions,” setting us up for the next cut.  

Stephens’s version of “Impressions” begins with the hammered dulcimer sound again providing a pulse, sounding a bit like a mid-tempo old Scottish march, with Stephens playing the theme at double-time, one drum beat per bar.  Akinmusire begins his solo low key but he picks up the pace a bit when Sanders starts a traditional bass walk and Brown kicks in a traditional (but light) beat.  Eigsti then plays a fairly straightforward, Chick Corea-ish solo.  Stephens starts slowly in his solo, then picks up the speed and intensity of his phrases and closes with some dramatic quavers.  Then Shaw begins his solo with probing phrases, the rhythm section slowing down its accompaniment, then he moves into overdrive with the rhythm section joining in, almost matching the drama of Stephens’s solo.  The close of the cut is pretty wild, having a carnival feeling--an improvised free-for-all for all the players, the hammered dulcimer sound returning.  This is a fine take on the Coltrane standard, with all hands performing well.

The recording closes with “Dr. Wong’s Bird Song,” which has Stephens and Eigsti playing a simple, repeated phrase in counterpoint to a different repeated phrase played by Akinmusire and Shaw, kind of a blues a la Phillip Glass.  Akinmusire solos first, toying with some repetitive phrases in his solo, catching the spirit of the tune.  Stephens plays a nimble, brief solo.  Sanders adds a low key solo before the cut closes with a repeat of the contrapuntal theme.  This is an interesting, low-key performance but something of an anti-climax after “Impressions”—almost like an encore.

Stephens provides a lot of variety with That Nepenthetic Place, with some straight-ahead cuts, some off-center cuts, a pop-ish vocal showcase, and a fresh take on “Impressions.”  The original compositions (including everything except “But Beautiful” and “Impressions”) are all well-conceived and interesting, and everyone plays well, especially Stephens, who is a consummate improviser.  With That Nepenthetic Place, as with the previously reviewed Today is Tomorrow, Stephens again fires on all cylinders.  

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