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Take Five: Dayna Stephens Triumphs at the Village Vanguard, and Joe Locke Takes a Stand

Along with the latest from Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, jazz-vocal supergroup säje, and keyboard whiz kid Justin Lee Schultz.

Dayna Stephens Quartet, “You Are Me Blues”

Whenever an artist plays their first week at The Village Vanguard, it’s often pegged as a rite of arrival. Maybe that’s a jazz-world cliché; maybe it overstates the case. But when you happen to catch a great set during one of these debuts, the weight of intention and the spirit in the air can combine to create that momentous feeling: a sense of mmhmm, that’s right.

For the moment, of course, the Vanguard is open only in a virtual sense, and its excellent livestream series hasn’t featured any first-timers. So we should feel all the more grateful for Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard, which tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens will release this Friday on his label, Contagious Music. (He came up with that name in a gentler time.)

Stephens made his Vanguard debut in February of 2019, a year that also saw him claim “Rising Star – Tenor Saxophone” in the DownBeat Critics Poll. Leading a blue-chip quartet with pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Ben Street and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, he revisited compositions from across his discography — and introduced a few new ones, including “You Are Me Blues,” which premieres here. 

The tune has a deceptively simple melody that Stephens and Parks both use as a springboard, while the rhythm team is cooking beneath. (Don’t miss Stephens’ stutter-keening reentry after the bass solo, about five minutes in.) You’d be right to locate a flicker of influence from the Branford Marsalis Quartet, but the ease and depth of the performance are genuine. Stephens already sounds sumptuously at home in the hallowed room; watch for a repeat booking, via livestream, soon.

Rob Mazurek and Exploding Star Orchestra, “A Wrinkle In Time Sets Concentric Circles Reeling”

Cornetist and composer Rob Mazurek has been so productive lately that it came as a shock to realize that Exploding Star Orchestra, his flagship, last released an album five years ago. The realization was due to some welcome news: the impending landfall of Dimensional Stardust, which will be released on Nov. 20 through International Anthem and Nonesuch. The first single, “A Wrinkle In Time Sets Concentric Circles Reeling,” was unveiled last week.

Mazurek doesn’t play on the track, which deftly deploys the members of his 11-piece cohort, including flutist Nicole Mitchell, vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianist Angelica Sanchez and guitarist Jeff Parker. The voiceover is written and performed by Damon Locks; the video, by Mikel Patrick Avery, captures a sense of intrepid, capacious wonder that Mazurek recognizes in his 5-year-old daughter.

säje, “Jolene”

A little over a year ago, Sara Gazarek stopped by Singers Unlimited with Michael Bourne to talk about her new album, Thirsty Ghost. Among the highlights of her session was a performance of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which she’d rearranged with pianist Geoff Keezer. (Find it at 12:20 in the show archive.) Now there’s an even more daring revision of the tune courtesy of säje, a new jazz-vocal supergroup formed by Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick and Erin Bentlage.

Gazarek still takes the lead, imbuing Parton’s iconic lyrics with agonized pathos. But the whoosh and swirl of vocal harmonies in the arrangement, building on Keezer’s framework, turns the song into a spectacular showpiece. And the singing, in all of its precision and power, is well matched by the simmering heat of Dawn Clement on piano, Anna Butterss on bass, and Christian Euman on drums.

Justin Lee Schultz, “Quarantine”

It’s hard not to feel a twinge of déjà vu when considering the tale of 13-year-old piano wunderkind Justin Lee Schultz. Like the jazz realm’s most celebrated recent prodigy, Joey Alexander, he comes with a cherubic face, an international background and a supportive family (along with boundless admiration for Herbie Hancock). But that may be where the important commonalities end for Schultz, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and now resides in Durham, N.C. Having recently https://youtu.be/SizoZwfKMZ4" target="_blank">turned heads alongside his father and sister on America’s Most Musical Family, he will release his first album, Gruv Kid, on Nov. 13 via Shanachie.

That the album boasts cameos by an assortment of smooth operators — Gerald Albright, Najee, Pieces of a Dream and more — should serve one clue that Schultz is on a different wavelength than Alexander. Here’s another one above: “Quarantine,” a tune that evokes both the gospel tonalities of Robert Glasper and the grounded soul of Bob James, and enlists another former whiz kid, Brazilian bassist Michael Pipoquinha. It seems clear that Schultz, who also plays guitar and electric bass himself, has spent this season of lockdown largely in the woodshed.

Joe Locke, “All Along the Watchtower / Breathe”

During a season of heightened struggle around racial injustice in this country, jazz artists have stepped up and spoken out in myriad ways. For vibraphonist Joe Locke, the spark came in the form of “All Along the Watchtower,” which Bob Dylan wrote during a different age of turmoil. While rearranging the tune, Locke was inspired to write companion lyrics that spoke more directly to this moment. 

He then enlisted some friends for a socially distanced recording session, including singers Raul Midón and KJ Denhert. Over a slow, stalking groove, they sing pointed words by Dylan (“There’s too much confusion / I can’t get no relief”) as well as by Locke (“I can’t breathe / ‘cause the weight of your history / is pressing down on me”). Along with the leader’s vibraphone, the instrumental includes Clarence Penn’s drums and Timothy Holley’s cello, among others.

The accompanying video, conceived by Locke and executed by Nadja von Massow, includes footage from recent protests as well as text by Frederick Douglass, including his everlasting statement “The conscience of the nation must be roused.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.