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Arts

Dayna Stephens, a saxophonist with a personalized advance on mainstream

The Dayna Stephens Trio gives itself inviting room to live up to the title of its new CD. A cherished American word is summed up by that Lady in the Harbor. Her face and headgear are gently mocked in the cover art of "Liberty" (Contagious Music).

With astute colleagues Ben Street, bass, and Eric Harland, drums, the saxophonist ranges over a stimulating set of original compositions, each of them showing how expansive three musicians without the bedrock of a harmony instrument can be.


Dayna Stephens: Exploring wry eddies off the mainstream
The leader sometimes sounds like a man seeking direction but determined to find his own path. This is all to the good, because the quest turns out to be  well-founded. "Lost and Found" is a track that obviously sums up the journey, with the leader setting aside his usual tenor to take up the baritone.

Stephens' sure-footed phrasing, sometimes surprising in its odd balances, inevitably makes sense once the listener gets the feel of the contexts the trio is laying out. There are varied rhythmic patterns that manage to cohere in the cartoonishly titled "Kwooked Stweet," a contrafact on John Coltrane's "Straight Street."

With affectionate parody, in "Loosy Goosy" Stephens the composer sometimes toys with the 32-bar convention of American popular song. More common is for him to lead his trio in forms more personal and harder to pin down.

An example is "The Sound Goddess," which sounds like an essay masquerading as a narrative. Long saxophone phrases dominate the performance, yet Street and Harland always sound as if there's room for them in the foreground, too.

"Wil's Way" ends the infectious program (don't be spooked by the label name!) with a perky tribute to a friend of the bandleader. The account features a particularly witty Street solo, followed by fruitful exchanges between the ever-imaginative drummer and his bandmates.

The Dayna Stephens Trio indeed seems at liberty to do just about anything it wants, and bring it off. In this time of confinement, that's something to celebrate.




A tale for our times: laughter is still the best medicine | Nancy Banks-Smith

For one moment 100 years ago a war widow and a plague orphan had fun courtesy of Charlie Chaplin

Gather round my skirts, children, while I tell you about the great plague of 1919. It killed my Aunt Lucy, who was not, as her name suggests, an elderly spinster.

She was young and pregnant and wore a yard of red gold curls piled on her head. To have hair long enough to sit on was considered a mark of beauty. My grandmother always blamed her husband, believing the pregnancy had killed her. He may well have brought the virus back from the front. Either way, she never forgave him. Good at incubating a grudge, my Grandma Nancy.

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