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This uniformly satisfying two-CD set, recorded at Manhattan’s famed nightclub in February 2019, showcases saxophonist Dayna Stephens in his lyrical wheelhouse. A thoughtful, serpentine improviser, Stephens flourishes in medium-tempo journeys where he can lead as much by implication as direction; the other members of the quartet — pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Ben Street and drummer Gregory Hutchinson — fully bolster such reveries.
Each disc opens well, the first with “Smoking Gun,” based on Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” but with angular nails well manicured, and the second with “Loosy Goosy,” another original the leader has recorded previously. The more peppery numbers, like “Contagious” and “JFK International,” owe much of their energy to Hutchinson, who not only provokes his bandmates but provides inspired, multifaceted solos of his own. Known primarily for his tenor playing, Stephens mixes things up with a number on soprano (“Tarifa”) and, still better, alto (“Faith Leap” and “The Beginning of an Endless Happy Monday”). In an even greater departure, he performs two numbers (“Radio-Active Earworm” and “Blakonian Groove”) on an electric wind instrument (EWI), and those attracted to such electronics will be pleased to know that he plans more such adventures in the future with a band named Pluto Juice.
Stephens tends to perform like a gracious dinner host: You’re welcomed in, you’re shown around the expansive house, you’re fed well. Eventually, someone gently puts a coat on your shoulders just before you walk to your car. The parties are never uproarious, and in the morning the conversation may not be as memorable as one might expect. Still, one’s always left with a warm and sincere feeling of gratitude.
— Sascha Feinstein