East Coast saxophonist Dayna Stephens drove into town -- literally, because his flight from Santa Cruz was canceled. His heroic road trip found him arriving at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla with just minutes to spare before his set time. After a hastily organized soundcheck performed while the audience milled about the library, the concert began with no one worse for the experience.
Indeed, the Stephens Quintet’s performance over two solid sets belied what must have been a horribly stressed out day. Stephens shared the stage with trumpeter Philip Dizack, a remarkably simpatico partner also from New York City, and a rhythm section comprised of Los Angeles cognoscenti, including Billy Childs on piano, Dave Robaire on bass and the exuberantly volatile Jonathan Pinson on drums.
Opening with “Weezy,” a Stephens original, Pinson locked in a rimshot heavy groove with Robaire as Stephens carved oblique, yet ultimately swinging, contours into the intimate performance space. Dizack had a warm and fluid approach to the instrument -- he often sounded like he was playing the larger flugelhorn. That tone was doubly effective as a response to the swelling percussion of Pinson, who stoked with a knowing prod. Childs brought up the rear with cascading melodies supported by the pliant walk of Robaire, whose thick woody sound is always transformative.
The Stephens group could have carried that identical post-Wynton blueprint into the evening without risk. What they did instead in the very next tune raised the bar in a way one rarely sees these days. Stephens picked up an EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) to introduce a synthesized aesthetic into what would otherwise be an entirely acoustic concept. I’ve seen attempts like this fall flat on multiple occasions, and I’ve got to admit, I had my doubts. But these cats knew what they were doing. All of a sudden, the new instrumentation brought new colors into the mix, without sacrificing the beauty of real instruments blending onstage. The tune, called “Stuck,” was anything but, darting in and out between pensive shadows and soaring fanfare while creating an instant highlight.
Childs began “Ran” with an off tempo soft pastel approach layered by Stephens’ breathy ‘Trane-like incantation, which gave way to strokes across the grain and opened the door for a beautifully structured Childs solo that seemed to fly off of his fingertips.
Stephens returned to the EWI to begin “Blakonia” (a dedication to drummer Jonathan Blake) alone, showcasing the extended range of the instrument, which coursed from piccolo highs to contrabass lows and everything in between before exposing the tune itself, full of intricate turnbacks, plot twists and an explosive Pinson outburst.
The saxophonist alluded to the backstory of his provocatively titled, “Screwed Me,” without actually explaining it, but I appreciated the stark contrast between Dizack’s languid soliloquy, Pinson’s relentless body shots and the Childs extrapolation, which carried the jagged theme to its logical conclusion.
The evening concluded with the intricate boppish theme “Contagion,” which featured an irresistible ebb-and-flow, and a stand alone solo from Stephens, who seemed to be channeling a freer Dexter Gordon, leading to expansive spots from Dizack, Childs and Pinson over the relentless atomic clock-like accuracy of Robaire.
There are very few rooms in San Diego jazz history with a pedigree like the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. Even on a day fraught with practical distractions like cancelled flights and an eight hour drive down the coast, the Athenaeum team and the Stephens Quintet partnered for an exhilarating sonic experience that won’t soon be forgotten.