It’s the high noon of jazz and the scene is flush with fresh talent. In the froth of the inevitable churn, it’s often difficult to place the champions among the swirling mass of challengers. While the frenetic music-making does offer up its rewards, many of the gifted are lost and sometimes it’s the more adventurous that are able to clear a path to lead listeners to new and exciting spaces.

Dayna Stephens’ name must be counted among the more audacious of them. The young tenor saxophonist, who has been making waves since the turn of the century, made his intentions clear in I’ll Take My Chances (2013), a fitting follow-up to his brilliant effort in Today is Tomorrow (2012), both published by the Dutch Criss Cross jazz label, and in Peace (2014), his latest offering.

Stephens, 36, was born in Brooklyn but brought up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He turned passionate about music at an early age, led by the example of his grandfather who was a saxophonist. Stephens studied both at Berklee Collge of Music in Boston and Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles with full scholarships. He started his professional career after his years at the Monk Institute, where he studied with the likes of Kenny Barron, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard.

After playing for a few years with his mentors and as a sideman for various bands, Stephens debuted with the effusive The Timeless Now (2007), leading to favourable comparisons with Shorter and Joe Henderson, whose debut album Page One (1963) has been an inspiration for many saxophonists.

Composed entirely of originals, The Timeless Now announced the arrival of an artist fully formed in his very first offering, ably assisted by a clutch of young talents that included virtuoso pianist Taylor Eigsti, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Ben Street. Established electric guitarist John Scofield is featured in three of the tracks, including an engaging Beginning of an Endless Happy Monday and a feet-tapping Smoking Gun.

For people taking note of Stephens, there was a sudden hiatus of a few years, during which he was diagnosed with a rare kidney ailment that requires daily dialysis. The affliction failed to stem his creativity, but spurred it to the rollicking post bop of Today is Tomorrow, which released in 2012 to wide critical acclaim.

Featuring a larger ensemble of pianist Aaron Parks, saxophonist Raffi Garabedian, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, and drummer Donald Edwards, it had five original compositions by Stephens and two by the extraordinary Parks, whose Hard-Boiled Wonderland was a showpiece of sophisticated imagining. Stephens also reinterpreted Henderson’s famous Black Narcissus to delightful effect.

Following closely after his sophomore effort, Stephens released the rather cheekily titled I’ll Take My Chances, continuing with the hard swinging pace of his earlier effort. Featuring the gifted Gerald Clayton on piano and Hammond B3 organ, bassist Joe Sanders, guitarist Charles Altura and drummer Bill Stewart , the album comprised a nice mix of Stephens’ composition, a beautiful reprise of Duke Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss and a couple penned by pianist Brad Mehldau. Dirty, composed by Stephens that has him playing a baritone sax solo dripping with soul and Clayton playing brilliantly on the organ, is a standout number in the album.

There was more to come from Clayton in 2013. In That Nepenthetic Place, he continued the sterling effort showed in his previous releases. Again featuring Eigsti, it has Joe Sanders on bass, Justin Brown on drums, Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone and sensational Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet. Gretchen Parlato, a fellow alumnus of the Monk Institute, makes a cameo appearance But Beautiful. A well-realised album, That Nepenthetic Place starts with the strident Dah-Dot Dah, where Stephens’ tentative tenor melds beautifully with the bold sound of Akinmusire’s horn. The band later takes on John Coltrane’s Impressions and provides an enjoyable free-for-all improvisation that sounds pretty wild.

In the recently released Peace, Stephens changes tack completely to offer his soulful interpretations of timeless ballads, a challenging task given the backstory of virtuoso performances by many legends. Accompanied by an all-star cast of pianist Brad Mehldau, drummer Eric Harland, bassist Larry Grenadier and guitar phenomenon Julian Lage, Stephens shows that he can hold his own in singing through his horn, showing no chink in his lyrical armour.

If jazz has a definitive instrument all of its own, it’s the saxophone. Although many jazz masters have played the trumpet, piano, guitar and double bass beautifully, they are claimed by many other genres of music and more widely used. The sax is the very icon of jazz, but playing the instrument of Charlie Parker and Coltrane requires courage, fortitude and an ability to sound refreshing. Stephens has all of it in ample measure.

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Jazzmatazz is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

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