It's easy to see why saxophonist Dayna Stephens is so beloved in the Bay Area. He's a Berkeley High alum who went on to attend Boston's Berklee College of Music, building successful careers on both coasts. He's tall and broad-shouldered with a sonorous speaking voice, but, like many jazz musicians, he comes off as being shy and soft-spoken. Stephens is almost at capacity for Facebook friends, but he remembers real-life names and faces, anyway. And all that aside, he's a brilliant musician.
Stephens' 2007 debut album, The Timeless Now, received accolades from many music critics, including the ones at the Express (it made the "Best Albums" list that year). Among peers, he's known for having an imaginative sense of harmony — meaning that if you write a simple melody line and hire Stephens to supply the chord changes, you'll wind up with a really killing tune.
Among the public, he's known for suffering a rare kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which requires the saxophonist to administer his own dialysis daily. Stephens is currently awaiting a kidney transplant, but still gigging as much as possible to afford the $4,000 he has to pay each month for anti-rejection medications. He wrote candidly about it on the Kickstarter page to raise money for his next album. "With all this in mind, the music must go on," he assured.
And certainly, nothing was hindering Dayna Stephens last Friday, when he took the stage at Berkeley's favorite members-only garage venue, Birdland Jazzista Social Club. The room was packed by 8:30 p.m., with every folding chair filled and some audience members standing awkwardly in back, or dangling from the arms of couches. There was about two inches of clearance between Stephens and the front row, and roughly the same distance from his head to the ceiling. The walls were crammed with birdhouses, hand-made by club owner Michael Parayno.
It had been a long week for Stephens, who now lives in New York but frequently returns to the Bay Area. On Monday, the saxophonist headlined his own health care benefit at Yoshi's. That weekend, he had a speaking gig lined up at the Stanford Jazz Festival. That night he'd play two sets, with a trio that featured Darrell Green on drums and Adam Shulman on piano, packing up at midnight to make way for a Venezuelan band. Parayno had admonished folks not to come before 10 p.m., when the energy would supposedly pick up, but most people showed for the early set anyway.
Which seemed to be the wise choice. The band started off with a blues by local organist Wil Blades, appropriately titled "Wil's Way." Shulman played a Nord keyboard, a vintage instrument with a resonant organ patch. Green sat at a trap set in back, right below the blue-and-gold-lit Birdland logo, which is only one font-setting removed from that of the famous club in New York. The whole space felt warm and close, with Shulman's bass lines occasionally clotting the house speakers, and a dog wandering in to sniff at the paper plates that people left under their chairs.
"Wil's Way" turned out to be an apt opener for a set of mostly contemporary tunes — Stephens' own, a ballad by Brad Mehldau, and one standard. Stephens, whose movements tend to be light and subdued on the bandstand, elicits a strong audience response nonetheless. People swayed and nodded extravagantly in their seats. Someone wooted when the saxophonist paused during his solo on a song called "Contagious." One man put his hands over his eyes during the Mehldau ballad — for which Stephens switched from saxophone to stand-up bass — as though that extra layer of darkness would help him concentrate. Trumpeter Mike Olmos — who, full disclosure, was my date that night — fetched a horn from his car and soloed on the last number.
Apparently, the concerts at Birdland sometimes devolve into jam sessions. The music goes well past 3 a.m., said Parayno, who managed to circumvent Berkeley's rigorous permitting process by charging all guests an annual $20 membership fee, rather than a nightly cover. It appears he's trying to replicate the kind of nightlife you'd find in New York, where a band might start its last set at 2 a.m. The name "Birdland" certainly has that connotation, and might sound pretentious were it not for Parayno's birdhouses. The fact that a place like this exists in Berkeley never ceases to amaze anyone. As this paper has previously reported, Parayno has certainly endured his share of strife with the city, but that seems to be over. At this point, Birdland is a successful, profit-losing operation.
And it's an ideal setup for Stephens' trio. Around midnight the band ended its second set. Green, Stephens, and Shulman packed up their equipment and convened outside on the sidewalk, where Parayno stood keeping vigil (spillage onto Sacramento Street was what got him in trouble with the city to begin with). Four people sat on the curb playing chess. Italian sausage and drumsticks sizzled on the porch grill. Stephens pulled up a folding chair. He would return to New York the following week, to hustle more gigs, and contend with his medical bills.