Saxophonist Dayna Stephens, the #1 Rising Star-Tenor in the 2019 Downbeat Critics Poll, is mostly known for playing multiple reeds in both contemporary and straight-ahead formats, only occasionally using an EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) and/or playing in fusion settings. Yet, this quartet, Pluto Juice, powered by Stephens’ extensive use of the EWI and the propulsive drumming of co-leader Anthony Fung, take us on an unexpected spacey, fully electric cosmic journey. Canadian musicians- guitarist Andrew Marzotta and bassist Rich Brown round out the quartet.
Stephens, of course is not the first acclaimed saxophonist to embrace the EWI. Bob Mintzer, the late Michael Brecker, Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, and peers such as Mark Shim, Seamus Blake, and Morgan Guerin have all taken this path. Stephens is excited about what he feels are limitless possibilities for the instrument that has eight octaves like a piano, can be played like a harmonica, and can plug into an endless combination of synths, pedals, harmonizers, and the like. Relative to the two and half octaves of a saxophone, it offers new territory fertile for exploration. To be fair, there are a few places where Stephens plays the soprano sax and others where he treats the EWI as a conventional woodwind instrument, but mostly he soars into the outer realms using it like a synth or electronic keyboard as the fusion keyboard and guitar masters do.
Pluto Juice is not just making cosmic music. They base their concept on NASA’s New Horizons craft flyby of the named planet in 2015 and space travel specifically as connoted by the song titles. The opener, Stephens’ “Welcome to Our Snow Globe” focuses as earth as one can envision the spacecraft drifting further away from its home planet. The music is languorous, connoting suspension in Fung’s “Pluto and Beyond” as the spacecraft enters a mysterious void with no planets in sight. Stephens’ “Outskirts of Neptune” follows, emulating the journey and introducing short EWI and guitar bursts that signal the excitement of nearing their destination. On “Rolly Polly Universe” Stephens plays mostly a gorgeously toned soprano, and with Marzotto’s chording, they conjure that classic Weather Report sound.
Fung’s presence looms large on his own frenzied “Trial on Mars” and “Green Gargantua,” which deal with imagined conflicts while the intervening Stephens’ “Zoomed Out” features keyboards of Pete Rende, and extensive Marzotto soloing to further color the soundscape. “Approaching Pluto” has an atmospheric backdrop and builds in intensity and excitement as one envisions the spacecraft positioning itself to view the planet. Marzotto’s fluid, rapid-run guitar lines mesh beautifully with the colorful textures that Stephens creates throughout, while Fung and Brown provide a usually heavy jazz-rock fusion underpinning. The brief “Lies That Tell the Truth” closes with Stephens and Marzotto floating above Fung and Brown’s insistent rhythm.
This is an auspicious debut and remarkable in the sense that while only one track contains a true keyboard, Stephens ventures into so many electronic realms on the EWI that one might think that this is a keyboard-driven effort.