Closer Than We Think
Release Date: April 5, 2024
Label: Cellar Music Group

Closer Than We Think, is an artistic reflection on similarity over difference. Comprising compositions by Stephens and his band members, as well as a curated selection of covers, Closer Than We Think is a remarkable statement and presentation of musical unity made even more powerful by the wealth of different experiences. 

After nearly a dozen albums, Stephens was seeking to grow, and continue moving ever forward as an artist, while remaining true to his musical identity and the legacy of the jazz greats who preceded him. Particularly as the world began to bloom anew as society rekindled connection, Stephens felt the need to blossom and bear fruit with it. Out of a feeling of being stagnant and stuck, Stephens sought to surround himself with those musicians who inspired him. His initial thoughts went to his jazz heroes - the musicians of established eras and titans of the past and present. However, due to the pacing of the contemporary world, creating a consistent roster of such peers and mentors was not viable, and Stephens at first became disappointed. “We all play better when we’re playing with people we perceive as being better than us,” Stephens says. “The frustration of not being able to make that happen on a consistent basis with the same personnel every time – that was a wall I was up against any time I wanted to book anything.” But from this initial setback, a seed of inspiration began to grow. Stephens - who is a full-time educator at some of America’s most prestigious music conservatories - thought of the places and people from whom he received inspiration and realized that while he is inspired by his heroes, he receives as much, if not more, inspiration from the students whom he has had the privilege of pouring into. “When that whole paradigm shift happened, there wasn’t much of a question of which folks I wanted to play with,” Stephens says. With a new plan, new inspiration, and a new direction, Stephens set out, refreshed, to assemble his crew for what would become Closer Than We Think.

The album’s title, Closer Than We Think, is taken from the idea of seeking similarities as humans, rather than harping and dividing ourselves among the myriad divisions upon which society seems to constantly fixate. The band, with its scattered origins and generational gaps, provides a living metaphor for the beauty that can be achieved when we as a species focus on the unity of collaboration and view our differences as strengths.

In addition to the bandleader of Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone and EWI, the ensemble present on this recording boasts a manifold and variegated talent pool of Emmanuel Michael (guitar), Kanoa Mendenhall (bass), and Jongkuk Kim (drums), with a guest feature by Jeremy Pelt (trumpet). Each musician was chosen by Stephens meticulously for their unique musical personalities and masterful artistry, both of which are endlessly present throughout every track on the album. Stephens met guitarist Emmanuel Michael in September 2022 as a student at the Manhattan School of Music, and could not stop thinking about his sound and presence. “Michael immediately struck me as a one-of-a-kind guitarist with a very special approach to expressing emotion with a personal sense of time and harmony,” Stephens says. “His sound will delightfully and wholly consume you.” Bassist Kenoa Mendenhall was first encountered by Stephens at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. “I have always admired her grace and amazing reflexes while being rock solid, reliable, and uber supportive,” Stephens says. Drummer Jongkuk Kim has been someone Stephens has wanted to record with for a while and was excited to finally have a reason to do so. “Jongkuk Kim is a creative wizard when it comes to rhythm, color and textures,” Stephens says. “I’m absolutely in love with his spontaneity and his use of dynamics and drive, especially when things get cooking.” In addition to his prowess in the jazz genre, Kim also boasts a notable resume, having worked with the Korean Pop megastars, BTS

Notable on Closer Than We Think is the distinct lack of piano. When asked, Stephens remarked that much of this album’s sonic palette was inspired by the timeless Sonny Rollins album, The Bridge. “My father bought me The Bridge and I fell in love, recognizing the seriousness, and also sometimes playful and humorous expressions that I felt from Sonny,” Stephens says. “That level of intimacy, warmth and feeling of limitless possibilities is the source of my addiction to this music.”

The track listing on the album represents a mosaic of composers, most of whom are in the band, and a vast swatch of emotions. The album opens with “Bubbly”, composed by the band’s guitarist, Emmanuel Michael. “This song speaks to me as the song that best represents the sound and spirit of this group,” Stephens says. “It’s a beautiful, singable, happy, joyous anthem.” Next is “The Nomad”, one of Stephens’s original compositions. The title is taken from the book The Fourth Turning, which presents insights into the idea of generational cycles over the course of human history. Within the analysis of the book, Generation X falls into the category of “The Nomad”, and this piece seeks to evoke the wanderings of both the character and the broader societal grouping with which it is associated. 

“Scrutiny” is the second composition by Stephens on the album, inspired by the idea that “all people deserve respect and all ideas deserve scrutiny.” The bandleader applies this concept personally: “To me, this means that conversation is the key to staying united as couples, communities and as a species, while evolving in harmony.” This composition embodies this spirit of unity while evolving forward as the composition unfurls itself over time, using a take on the blues with a recurring rhythmic motif to execute the concept. The album features the iconic Wayne Shorter standard, “ESP” as homage to the bandleader’s time as a mentee of the late great saxophonist. In Stephens’s arrangement, he adds a subtle twist to the harmony that further highlights the haunting melody and accentuates the harmonic resolution created by Shorter. 

Stephens’s third and final original on the album is “A New Spring”, and is a song that is emotionally tied to the composer himself. The melody was composed in Stephens’s head as he was receiving one of his last dialysis sessions before receiving a kidney transplant. As Stephens sat in the dialysis chair, his brain spun the melody through a plethora of orchestration options, and each one he loved. While it has been performed in a variety of ways, the arrangement used on the album with this guitar-driven soundscape, powerfully encapsulates the idea of arriving at a new beginning. 

With Closer Than We Think, Stephens illustrates in a sonically poignant way the great power of drawing on similarities to create a homogenous identity, while still acknowledging and even relying on the differences that create the beloved individualities within each person. Indeed, Closer Than We Think showcases that closeness is most powerful when it occurs despite difference, not due to a lack of difference, and when the roleplayers in question choose to come together with their differences to make something newfound and ebullient. Certainly, as Stephens presents his twelfth album, he has shown himself to learn from the brilliance of history while embracing the endless and unpredictable variation that marks the future.

 

Closer Than We Think releases on Cellar Music Group on April 5, 2024.

POSTROCK CAFE
A CLOSER LISTEN 
"Dayna Stephens uses Closer Than We Think as an avenue to explore similarities between nations, cultures and genders." Check out this album announcement here.

MORGAN ENOS
LONDON JAZZ NEWS
Check out this insightful interview here.

MICHAEL TOLAND
THE BIG TAKE OVER
"The combination of the musicians’ confident versatility and Stephens’ affecting tone makes Closer Than We Think irresistible." Check out the full review here.

ADAM FEIBEL
JAZZ FM
"Closer Than We Think is notable for its distinct lack of piano, which was inspired by the timeless Sonny Rollins album The Bridge." Check out the full review here.

NATE CHINEN
THE GIG 
“The Nomad,” incidentally featured on NPR Music Live Sessions via WRTI in 2021, is a Stephens original with a seductive ostinato and a searching melodic line." Check out the full review here.

RICHARD B. KAMINS
STEP TEMPEST
“The Nomad" (the first of three pieces composed by Stephens) is a delightful sonic experience –– just sit back and get lost in the music. Check out the full review here.