Dayna Stephens of Pluto Juice explains the EWI, the saxophone’s ‘crazy’ cousin

It’s a relatively rare musical instrument, but for those who play it, the EWI opens up whole new worlds of possibility.

The EWI (pronounced ee-wee) is an electronic wind instrument that’s often associated with jazz fusion — but its use persists throughout jazz and other musical genres to this day. Basically, the EWI is to the saxophone, clarinet or flute what the keyboard is to the piano.

Some of the jazz saxophonists who have helped the EWI gain popularity are Michael Brecker, Bob Mintzer and Seamus Blake. One of today’s great champions of the EWI is Dayna Stephens, the New York-based reed player who has spent the last 15 years gaining global recognition for his musicianship and compositions. He’s a DownBeat Critics’ Poll winner who has released 10 recordings as a leader.

His latest project is Pluto Juice, a Toronto-based jazz quartet featuring drummer Anthony Fung, bassist Rich Brown and guitarist Andrew Marzotto. The group released their eponymous debut album in 2021, and the EWI’s wide range and otherworldly sounds are a perfect fit for the space-themed tunes.

Here, Dayna Stephens briefly explains why he loves the EWI.

For someone who isn’t familiar with the EWI, how would you get them up to speed about what that instrument is all about?

EWI stands for “electronic wind instrument.” There are a few companies that make it. It has the range of a piano — eight octaves — but you’re blowing it like a saxophone or a horn. It can be any sound that you design — any analog sound, or you can wire it to Moogs, different keyboards or whatever. It tend to play the onboard sounds, and I go through pedals and effects, and I also have sounds on my iPad that I mix with it. Every song has a slightly different sound. It’s a powerful thing in comparison to saxophone, in terms of range and texture possibilities.

Is it taking the same kind of approach as a wind instrument? Is it easier to physically execute?

You can actually set that up on the instrument to either be very resistant like a natural saxophone would be with a hard reed, or you can make it super easy and light. There are pluses and minuses to both. I’m somewhere in the middle. I teeter and totter from one to the other.

When you talk about that eight-octave range, as someone who wants to paint pictures and be expressive artistically, it seems like it would be opening up doors that were completely closed to you before.

It really is. The only thing that’s not the same is the sound of the analog, natural saxophone. Other than that, everything is wide open. I can play two notes at once, or I can even set it up to play two notes and then press a button so it’s playing four notes at once. I can do all these crazy things with pedals. It really is its own world. It’s its own instrument that’s really separate from saxophone.

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