By looking at his discography and tour schedule, it’s impossible to predict what pianist Dan Tepfer will do next. His career, much like his improvisations, have logic and structure, yet a surprising number of twists and turns along the way. Known in large part for his longstanding duo with Lee Konitz, Tepfer is constantly expanding his horizons. We recently spoke with Tepfer on the phone, while he was in Argentina, having finished a solo program of his popular Goldberg Variations/Variations, as well as a trio tango gig with Pablo Aslan and Jeff Lederer. Only weeks before, Tepfer had released a video album of algorithmic music, Natural Machines, and was also working on a straight-ahead project with Christian McBride, Carl Allen, and Renée Fleming.
In an upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, Tepfer will perform with drummer and percussionist Leon Parker for an evening of free improvisation, their second performance after an exciting first encounter in Paris earlier this year. Check out our interview below to get a deeper sense of Tepfer’s insight into the dynamic and unexpected craft of free improvisation.
The Jazz Gallery: I’m inspired by the range of gigs you play, and always with such interesting and unexpected musicians. Do these opportunities arise naturally? Is it random? Do you have a manager who lines things up for you?
Dan Tepfer: It’s kind of weird, right? One day I’m doing my algorithmic music, and literally the next day I’m doing a high-society New York gig with Renée Fleming and Christian McBride. I love it man, it’s fun. In terms of playing with Renée Fleming, the way that happened was that Renée had a gig with Christian McBride at the Kennedy Center, and they needed a pianist for that. The Kennedy Center recommended me, and Renée, Christian, and I really hit it off. She’s been hiring me for the last year for different things, and she got me on her new record actually, which is pretty cool, with Christian as well as Carl Allen on drums, man. If you told me I’d make a record with Christian McBride and Carl Allen, I would have said that was the craziest thing ever.
TJG: Did it feel like the craziest thing ever, in the moment?
DT: Nah, it felt great, man. It’s more that those guys usually play pretty straight-ahead music, and while I enjoy playing straight-ahead music, it’s not my bag, really. As you were saying, it’s an unexpected mix of people. But I love that.
TJG: And how has the reception been for your algorithmic music and the new video album, Natural Machines?
DT: Man, it’s been great. The people who have checked out the album have sent me some warm notes. The reception I get at the gigs is really nice too. It feels like I’m doing something exciting and different, which is an amazing feeling. I don’t think that many people have seen the album, and it probably wasn’t the most strategic decision to release it all at once, but I was super glad to get it out there. I’m proud of the work, and I think it’s one of those projects where you get it out there, and it’ll get seen over time.
TJG: So, this show you have coming up with Leon Parker is another one of these unexpected pairings, another one of your shows that I wouldn’t have anticipated. At the same time, it seems so natural. You played together once, is that correct?
DT: Yeah, we played a show at the Sunset/Sunside in Paris last May. Man, I’m really excited about this show. I’m genuinely really psyched about it. Leon is an unbelievable musician. He’s a rare combination of two things: On the one hand, he has deep, impeccable time and groove. It’s simply magical. Honestly, the only other drummer I can think of where I’ve gotten that feeling of time being so crystalline was with Paul Motian. On the other hand, what’s incredible about Leon is that he’s musical in a way that, for me, resembles the mindset of chamber music. If I’m going to play with a percussionist, or any musician really, I want to feel like we’re deeply listening to each other. Empathy is at the top of the list, and Leon is a deeply sensitive cat. Nothing ever feels too loud or inappropriate. He’s got incredible force, but it’s so empathetic to what’s happening around him. It’s very special, and very original. Even the way he plays swing is unique. I don’t think he gets heard anywhere close to enough in New York.