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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by John Guillemin

Photo by John Guillemin

Alongside saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Dan Tepfer will be joining us this weekend to present four sets of music integrating a woodwind quartet and smartphones that, in his words, is motivated by the question, “Does this really allow us to do something that we couldn’t possibly do any other way?” We caught up with Dan by phone to ask him about the creative possibilities of duo playing and the music he’ll be performing this weekend, which will involve computer software that Dan himself wrote.

The Jazz Gallery: How’d you and Ben start playing together?

Dan Tepfer: The way we started playing together was that Ben moved to town and we happened to have a common friend who put together a session with both him and me. What’s funny is that before that session, our moms turned out have a common friend who lives in Vienna, and she’d sent Facebook messages to both of saying, “You should look up the son of my friend, who’s a jazz musician,” and we both had the same reaction: “Oh, whatever.” We played together and had a great time and then realized we had that connection; it was just during the session that we were like, “Oh, aren’t you that guy…?”

TJG: With duo playing, do you find yourself having to make conscious adjustments to accommodate for the absence of drums, bass, and other instruments?

DT: it’s funny because I’ve been playing a lot of duo now—I’ve been playing with Lee Konitz over the last 7 years, and this duo with Ben, and I had a duo series at Cornelia Street Café where I played with Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, Mark Turner, Julian Lage—so duo is something that I just really love. These days I actually find myself adjusting when I play trio! I really like having that space to make my own decisions, especially things like harmonic movement since you don’t have a bassist involved and can be in control of all the reharmonizing and the time—I find that to be really creative.

I always felt a real strong affinity for the duo format; I really like that it gives you a ton of responsibility, you know, especially as a pianist. There’s a lot resting on your shoulders, and I like that there’s no excuses and that you really have to take care of business.

TJG: An older musician once told me that the main challenge of playing in an exposed setting is playing the “frame,” since you don’t have a rhythm section to do it for you.

DT: I mean, I would say that’s the main thing: maintaining the frame and making it engaging and also not playing the frame—being creative in the way you play the frame, which needs to be expressed clearly but creatively, and, on top of that, finding real freedom and a vocal quality within that frame, so you’re being two things at once. You’re being that rooted element that keeps it all together and this crazy little kid that’s just having fun on top of that. I really like the mental division this brings.

TJG: How do you go about practicing to perform in this kind of a situation?

DT: One of things I realized over the years is that staying in the frame is a challenge in itself. When I was first playing with Lee, we’d be playing tunes in all keys and I’d practice just sitting down and recording myself paying a tune for 17 minutes, and I’d listen back and see if I really had my head in it the whole time. I think the main challenge is concentration; you have nothing to rest on and its very meditative, which might be one of the main reasons I like solo and duo. That space you have to enter into is a real concentrated space, so my practice is just recording a really long version of it and being really intransigent when listening back and being real about being there the whole time. A lot of it is endurance, like being an endurance runner.

TJG: In a post on your blog, you mention how playing with Lee Konitz not only made specific aspects of playing stand out to you, but also the necessity of tying various elements together in a holistic way. Can you speak a bit more about the learning curve of playing with musicians in a duet setting?

DT: I mean, that was a total “ah-ha” moment, you know, where I just realized that everything has to be working on the highest level for it to be good. Let me think about other moments…Just about rhythm: when you have a bass and drums, rhythmic problems are way simpler. Essentially, you can just listen to the drummer and that’s where the rhythm is coming from, but without that, there are philosophical questions, like, is it coming from me as a pianist? Am I the source of the rhythm and the saxophonist is leaning on that, or are we creating that together? I think the best duos are those where rhythm is created together, and one thing I’ve been working on is that. Also trying to get away from rhythm being in my body, but being in this invisible space between us; it sounds really esoteric, but it’s a really real feeling.

There’ve been some moments of revelation with that kind of stuff: I was in Cuba last year studying Batá drums, which is really intense rhythmically and complicated, so I was tapping my foot to keep a sense of where I was. Sometimes, you come in on the second sixteenth note and it’s just easier if you’re tapping the foot on the one, and the guy I was studying with was like, “Why are you doing that?” I said, “I guess it’s easier; it helps me keep the time,” and he said, “You should try not doing that.” I replied, “Well, what do you pay attention to if you’re not checking in with where the one is?” and he said, “Just listen to the melody.”

That made me realize that rhythm can be approached from this completely other place—not entirely about stomping your foot and bobbing your head up and down—and in a much more peaceful place of just melody, in a melodic sense of hearing rhythm. These Cuban dudes are grooving like there’s no tomorrow and it looks like they’re doing nothing; they’re completely relaxed. You’re not losing anything rhythmically by not doing those other things. In fact, it makes it more grooving, so that’s a more recent thing I’ve been working and that’s something Ben and I have talked about a lot—allowing rhythm not to be a self-absorbed thing but something light that happens in the ether.

TJG: Can you comment about the origins of the app you created to feed sheet music to other musicians in real time? 

DT: Well, first of all, I didn’t actually create the app that’s being used on the smart phone. It was created by another guy; I was going to, but then I looked it up and found there was already one that’s available for free, called OSCNotation, but I did write a pretty involved piece of software on the computer side. Basically, the software I wrote takes notes that I play into a controller keyboard that I’ve had sit on the piano, and it parses them and organizes them in various ways and then sends that information to four iPhones individually, where each person gets one note on a staff to play. There’s no rhythm; part of the thing here was controlling the pitch content that they’re getting. I want them to be participatory with other elements like dynamics, rhythm, texture, phrasing, sound, all these areas of freedom for them. It’s fixing one variable so we have more freedom in the others.

TJG: What have you learned about the potential and constraints of this approach from doing it in the past?

DT: I think it’s really in development as of now. The question that always comes up for me is, “Does this really allow us to do something that we couldn’t possibly do any other way?” because obviously you could write pieces ahead of time and perform them, so the question is, “Is this more of a novelty, a technological gimmick, or is it really allowing us to reach a musical space that couldn’t be reached any other way?” And, to be honest, I don’t have the answer to that question yet.

Part of it is that it’s a real challenge doing it in real time; for example, there’s a delay between the time when I hit the notes on the keyboard, when they show up on the screen, and when the musicians move to that new note. It’s very different from piano in that respect so I really have to think ahead, and part of the challenge is getting better at it and part of it is really identifying the best use of the technology.

TJG: The particular quartet joining you and Ben this weekend is a little unusual: two bassoons, clarinet, and trumpet. How did you come upon this configuration?

DT: To be honest, I’ve tried this with a bunch of different settings now—the first time I did it I was literally finishing the software the day of, with Lee and the Harlem String Quartet at Winter Jazz Fest, and Ben and I did it over the summer in Paris with two clarinets and two bassoons. For these shows in New York, we got in touch with ICE [International Contemporary Ensemble] and they recommended trumpet for sonic diversity. We’re totally open to these suggestions and seeing what happens. The name of the game with this is improvisation, which is why we’re doing this way—otherwise we’d write the notes out beforehand. The goal is to do group improvisation in real time. In other words, we’re open to trying it with trumpet and other things. I think of things like that—suggestions from ICE and others—as a kind of improvised element, an outside input.

TJG: Was the integration of classical musicians or non-jazz musicians in an improvisational context part of the goal with using this new technology?

DT: That’s definitely a part of it. Many of the gigs that we’ve done have—actually, all have been with people who are not super-experienced improvisers, and this is been really exciting because it’s allowed us to interact with these musicians that come from different traditions in a way that feels really fresh. It’s very new technology that’s allowing us to do something exceptional, and after these performances the classical musicians are so psyched even though music is rather simple, one note at a time. They’re thrilled to be able to participate since they’re really improvisers and you get to work with musicians who have amazing command of tone and phrasing and intonation.

TJG: In another interview, you mention how improvisation is good when it’s not just a rendition, but a commentary. Do you think of this music with the quartet as a commentary of some sort—maybe on modern technology, or something else?

DT: I think what you’re talking about is commentary in a musical sense, like on the “Goldberg Variations” where I’m really making a musical commentary on the Bach and the commentary is enclosed in the music I’m playing, whereas in this case I think there is some different commentary here. These things like iPhones, generally speaking, have a tendency to make us retreat into our own little sphere and not really be in communication with the space immediately around us.

What I like about this is that we’re using that technology to bring us together in a way that hasn’t been possible before, so there’s a layer of commentary there, which is less contained in the music—although what would make that strong is if the music is really strong and has that real sense of connection with the space and the moment. But again, this is like beginning phase of the stuff, but I do like the element that these alienating toys have the potential to bring us together.

TJG: In the liner notes to Small Constructions, you mention how you and Ben didn’t worry too much about genre and category when preparing the record. Do you personally identify as a “jazz” musician? What do you say when people ask what kind of music you play? 

DT: Even though I play a lot of music that wouldn’t immediately be identified by jazz by people who aren’t jazz musicians, I do actually in the end tend to identify as a jazz musician just because the basis of what I do is improvisation. That improvisatory tradition that I’ve learned from and tried to grow from is jazz, and that’s really what it is.

I’m really interested in classical harmony and all that, but at the end of the day, I haven’t studied the classical approach to improvisation, which is a whole other thing. I identify strongly with the jazz tradition, like when I’m playing standards with Lee, and I grew up playing standards with my mom and my grandfather was a jazz pianist on the West Coast. That jazz tradition is something that speaks to me really personally, and I love playing old standards. I feel like those really are my roots, so that’s why I identify with it even though a lot of my music isn’t trying to sound like what we’d stereotypically identify as jazz.