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Saxophonist Dayna Stephens' 'Liberty' Feels Right For The Way We're Living

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens was sidelined with kidney disease several years ago. To celebrate his recovery, he has two albums due out this year. The first of those, for a compact trio, is now out. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's a showcase for Stephens' sleek sound and music suited to life in lockdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAYNA STEPHENS TRIO'S "WIL'S WAY")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens' tune "Wil's Way" from his trio album "Liberty." Jazz combos without piano have an airy, open sound but leave everyone more exposed, working harder to define the form and fill in the texture. That's when it helps to have creative, compatible partners like bassist Ben Street and drummer Eric Harland.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAYNA STEPHENS TRIO'S "WIL'S WAY")

WHITEHEAD: Dayna Stephens can cry and rip it up on tenor, but at heart, he's a streamlined melodic player. His handsome down-the-middle tone is not too heavy or light, though he can lean either way. His sound is sleek, with very light vibrato. And the lines he improvises are uncluttered and well-organized. His horn sings.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAYNA STEPHENS TRIO'S "RAN")

WHITEHEAD: Tenor is Dayna Stephens' main saxophone, but on his new album, he also sneaks in features for alto and baritone. You might barely notice the switch since he gets a consistent sound from horn to horn. His baritone is more broad shouldered than his tenor, but he doesn't wallow in the honking low notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAYNA STEPHENS TRIO'S "THE LOST AND FOUND")

WHITEHEAD: There are some pretty tunes, mostly his own, on Dayna Stephens' album "Liberty," inspired by other pieces of music and people and places he knows. Those pretty tunes also serve to get the band moving. The push and pull beat of Eric Harlan's drums and Ben Streets' bass keeps the music breathing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAYNA STEPHENS TRIO'S "KWOOKED STWEET")

WHITEHEAD: It may seem odd to you, as it does to me, that I'm talking about a new jazz record as if the world were carrying on as usual. But maybe there's a life lesson here. The Dayna Stephens Trio's improvised grace in a compact setting, where everyone's interdependent but no one steps on any toes - that can set a good example for the way we're living now.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAYNA STEPHENS TRIO'S "THE SOUND GODDESS")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. His new book is "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Liberty," the new album by saxophonist Dayna Stephens. On tomorrow's show, Terry speaks with Tom Colicchio - celebrated chef, restaurateur, food activist and head judge on "Top Chef," the cooking competition series. He'll talk about what's gone wrong in the food supply chain during the pandemic, why restaurants will have a hard time reopening and staying in business, and how staying at home is changing some of his ideas about cooking. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.