This album comes right on time. Just the other day it seemed to me that you always had to go back to Dexter Gordon or Coleman Hawkins to hear some beautiful sax ballad playing. Here comes Dayna Stephens with his superb new album which has everything: eleven ballads, imaginative playing, first-class band, and top production.
The album opens with the title track, a Horace Silver composition setting the pace and mood for the entire album. Brad Mehldau plays a candid solo, as does bassist Larry Grenadier. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”, the Tony Bennett trademark piece, becomes an open playground for Mehldau and drummer Eric Harland before segueing back to the main melody and the final hushed blow by Stephens. With the Antonio Carlos Jobim tune “Zingaro”, the album gets an added color: guitarist Julian Lage, known for his exceptional work in Gary Burton‘s band, has his first bluesy appearance. The solos throughout are never too long, always on the spot and abetting the song and the respective melody.
Sacha Distel‘s “The Good Life” evokes memories of Sonny Stitt, Dave Brubeck‘s “The Duke” has a slightly faster tempo for a change and there are two pieces by the great Ennio Morricone: “Brothers” from “The Mission” and “Deborah’s Theme” from “Once Upon A Time In America”, the latter a perfect showcase for a more subdued interplay. The production by Matt Pierson is crisp and well-balanced, especially noticeable in the Astor Piazzolla composition “Oblivion”, where bass and guitar get into a symbiotic feel at the beginning and sax and drums are finely woven into the mix.
And yes, there is a Coleman Hawkins moment, but “Body & Soul” is even more intimate here with only Stephens and Grenadier in perfect interchange and a contemplative bass solo (with a little help from Eric Harland). My favorite Henry Mancini song is also on the album: “Two For The Road” is handled with aplomb and has a simply beautiful solo by Lage.
Stephens plays baritone, soprano, and tenor sax on his new album and was influenced by the ballad style of singer Luther Vandross. Heartfelt and sensuous. By the way, if you want to hear another side of Dayna Stephens, check out his equally brilliant “Today Is Tomorrow” from 2012.