Dayna Stephens/Sarah Tandy review – masterful sax and adventurous improv

606 Club/Pizza Express Jazz Club, London
American saxophonist Stephens combined the clout of John Coltrane with the stylings of Warne Marsh, while British pianist Tandy delivered fearless takes on classic jazz repertoire

Stars always illuminate the stages of the London jazz festival: Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Angélique Kidjo and Abdullah Ibrahim have been among the celebrities at its 25th anniversary event in the last week. But the festival, which has its fingers on the pulse of contemporary music, also spotlights rising talents such as the young British pianist Sarah Tandy, and gives overlooked performers such as the American saxophonist Dayna Stephens as much importance on the billing.

Stephens’ festival visit to the 606 Club on 16 November picked up where he left off in Britain 17 years ago, when a kidney condition (treated by a transplant in 2015) made him unable to tour. Partnering at the 606 with a local trio led by the pianist Gareth Williams (joined by Calum Gourlay on bass and Tim Giles on drums), Stephens steadily expanded on the jazz-sax equivalent of speaking in long sentences, but scattered them with hints as to why every subclause would be worth waiting for.

Stephens combines the clout of classic-era tenor saxophone giants such as John Coltrane and Joe Henderson with the sinuous long-lined approach of the contemporary tenorist Mark Turner and his cool school inspiration Warne Marsh. But this music could hardly be further from buffs’ jazz. The soberly reflective melody of Common Ancestors slipped into skidding free-sax swoops that interrogated the resourceful Williams’ weaving meditations, sharply revving phrases and flinty chords. Breathy sounds and staccato patterns introducing You Are Me (rat-tat-tat repetition of a single note is a favourite signature of Stephens) eased into bumpy Thelonious Monk-style swing. The electronic wind instrument’s repertoire of sighing exhalations, whistles and organ-like reverberations coloured a haunting ballad, and on a simmering Latin melody Stephens sidestepped the obvious without ever losing the plot. It was an unflashy, masterful performance.

At a Pizza Express Jazz Club lunchtime gig on 16 November, Sarah Tandy (a former BBC Young Musician classical finalist in 2002) and her trio showed exactly why there’s been buzz about her on the jazz grapevine this year, notably for her work with saxophonist Camilla George. Tandy mostly played classic jazz material (Monk’s Teo, a remould of It’s All Right With Me, Wayne Shorter’s Black Nile), but combined almost shy unveilings of the themes with a string of fearless, fizzing, rhythmically adventurous improvisations. She is one of the brightest sparks on an increasingly lively UK youth-jazz scene.

• The London jazz festival continues until 19 November.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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