Tenor saxophonist and composer Dayna Stephens brings his latest project, Triptagon, to Lincoln Center on December 28 to close out another stellar year of free concerts and events at the David Rubenstein Atrium. In advance of the show, which is presented in collaboration with The Jazz Foundation of America, Programming Manager Meera Dugal sat down with Stephens to discuss his fascination with the EWI (electronic wind instrument), how he helps students find their voices, and what jazz can teach the world.
Meera Dugal: Earlier this year, you released your eighth album, Gratitude. And you even did it on your brand-new label, Contagious Music. How was the process of writing Gratitude different from your previous albums?
Dayna Stephens: This record was recorded at the same time as my sixth album, Peace. They were recorded in the same two-day period. We didn't realize it until we finished, but we had enough for two records, minus one track, which we did at my house earlier this year. For the two projects together, I wanted to choose songs that I really loved. Melodies that have haunted me and inspired me and that I felt were intimate. Just hearing the notes played very generically by themselves, you could still feel the beauty in what was written. And that was mainly the goal, to really create something beautiful musically—but unique, not just cliché.
MD: You've added EWI and synth for this record. How did you get into that?
DS: I got the EWI ten years ago, but I didn't really bring it out into the public for probably five or six years. I wasn't really comfortable on it yet, didn't feel ready. But I always loved the possibility of it. I first heard it played by Bob Mintzer with the Yellowjackets when I was in high school, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, in 1997. I'll never forget just being amazed by the range of it, the highs and the lows, all in one instrument.
It's one of these instruments in terms of sound possibilities, it's endless. You can evolve as much as you can afford to evolve, in terms of different sound modules or effects pedals. It's a fun, new, different world for me. I love the blending of acoustic instruments and electronic instruments in an organic way. And EWI is such an organic electric instrument, because it's controlled by your breath. My latest group project—Triptagon—is really trying to display the different possibilities of acoustic and electric.
MD: That's the project that you're premiering at the Atrium. Tell me about the name Triptagon, and why you decided to try this new format.
DS: I've played with Gilad [Hekselman] quite a bit over the last few years, and Tommy [Crane] is someone I've wanted to play with forever on a regular basis. This is a band where I really don't want to have any limits to where we can go if we're thinking of things in terms of genre. I want to feel free to kind of play whatever—something simple, something really complicated, something through-composed. All the different musical possible situations or vibes you can think of.
Triptagon—on a focused level it's like a shape that can change, like a triangle that can change what kind of triangle it is. But on a broad level it's a shape or some entity that has the ability to change based on what's needed. This group has the ability to change its texture and go into all these unexplored places. That's loosely what Triptagon is.
"I just want to experience what it feels like, just having that timeless feeling, that enlightened journey that music often gives us. That's my goal."
MD: It sounds so different from what I've heard from you before.
DS: Yeah, I felt a bit typecast into a certain type of music, but there's also been this part of me that's always wanted to expand the circle of possibility. I don't want to feel limited by the type of instruments that I express my sound through. This is my journey into synth world, or just the other electronic possibilities.
MD: Tell me about the label you created, Contagious Music, and why you decided to self-produce this album.
DS: I guess like anything, the landscape of jazz record labels is evolving. The way the music is hitting the fans' ears, the listeners' ears is different, and also the technological advances—for us to be able to create all of these things on our own. Companies are making it easier for people to bypass labels. There's many reasons why I decided to go this way. Honestly, I've been curious to really know everything that's involved with putting out a record, so this was a perfect opportunity. This record had been sitting for two years and I had gotten new life and more energy to actually put toward checking it out myself. It was a daunting and terrifying jump, but I decided to go for it last November.
We'll see what happens. It may expand as a label. I mean, I really want it to be a platform for guys who have a great product but are still trying to figure out the best way to get it out to people.
MD: Speaking of giving a platform and nurturing other artists in the community, you are teaching at Manhattan School of Music, and you do a lot of mentoring of other young artists, and I'm wondering—what are the things about jazz that you can't teach? How do you help people find their sound?
DS: That's a very involved question! I think first of all, we're all a product of our surroundings and we're all a product of how we respond or how much we're inspired by our surroundings. And we're also a product of our genetics to a certain extent, and what we've been exposed to from zero to five, you know? All of that stuff is super important. So first of all, some of it is out of our control.
Teaching a new student how to find their own voice? A lot of it—if you think of any artist, 99 percent can tell you who they're influenced by. So their sound is going to come from who they're really influenced by. And the more unique they are usually comes from the amount of diversity of people that they're into. So I always stress that—having a wide, diverse amount of influences. That's what I instill first.
Second, learn how these guys tell their story and then figure out how to tell your own. I go back to the basics of what makes them them. Break it down to its essential elements and build your voice through that. That, coupled with a diverse amount of influences.
And third, the most important key, is writing music. Writing music. Because when you play "Stella" you're thinking of Miles Davis. When you play "You Don’t Know What Love Is" you're thinking of Sonny Rollins. If you write a song, you're not thinking of anyone but yourself; you are the interpreter of that music so you're going to get to your own voice much quicker playing your own music. I have all my students writing at least five songs this semester. And I'm seeing a lot of these kids really defining themselves through this process.
School is a lot about what. What to play. What rhythms you can play. What harmony you can play. Jazz music is more about the how. I just make sure when I'm talking to my students, we keep clear that the how is the most important. It's like learning words. You're learning the right words, but make sure you use them in the right context.
MD: What about the why?
DS: That's a tough thing. The why is different for everyone.
MD: What's your why?
DS: The why has changed for me. It's been a very gradual change. When I was younger, I just wanted to be like Bird. I wanted to be able to express like that. But I can't deny that at that young age I was like, man, I also want to be famous like that.
As I grew older I started to realize that fame wasn't a genuine motivation for me. It wasn't actually even something that I wanted. I wanted to play with all of these guys that have given me so much inspiration. I just want to be able to make music with these guys. Not for any ego reasons, I just want to experience what it feels like, just having that timeless feeling, that enlightened journey that music often gives us. That's my goal. And if fame is going to allow me to do that easier, then cool, I guess. We see famous people all the time on the news. I don't envy that shit. And luckily, I'm a jazz musician so I don't have to worry about it.
MD: What can non-jazz musicians learn about living in the world by understanding the principles of jazz?
DS: I've heard many say, including Stefon Harris, that jazz is the perfect example of a democracy. We've all heard this. I think it's very true. If you're doing it at a transcendent level, you have to be a really good listener, which is something that's highly lacking in most aspects of daily life, especially American life, right now. Listening, listening, listening. We're not really listening to each other. You ask one side about the other side and they can't even really tell you. And that goes both ways. So that right now is the biggest lesson that society can learn from jazz. Open your fucking ears. And really check out your surroundings. Listen to what this guy is actually saying.
MD: What do you hope people leave with after seeing one of your shows?
DS: I hope they leave with a sense of peace and wonder. I can't ask for more than that.
Meera Dugal is the Programming Manager for the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center.