Pianist Dan Tepfer (age 36) and saxophonist Lee Konitz (age 90) forge a unique, timeless and enrapturing musical partnership which has been documented on multiple releases over the past ten years. Their most recent, Decade, out now on Verve/Decca Records France, celebrates their improvisational connection performing and recording as a duo (it has been almost ten years since the release of their album Duos With Lee on Sunnyside Records). We spoke with both musicians about their creative process; the creation and release of this album; and about towing the line between lush free-improvisation and songbook reinvention.
The Jazz Gallery: Lee, I feel that there is an almost universal, romantic quality to your playing which is featured well on this stripped down duo recording; somehow you resist grandiosity while remaining interesting—can you speak about that description at all, and about what we might expect at the release show at the Gallery?
Lee Konitz: Let’s talk after the show, so you can use your Imagination, but thank you, that’s a good description, I guess. Thanks!
TJG: Dan, you’ve been playing with Lee for 10 years now, and you play a little bit of saxophone yourself (on your duo album with Ben Wednel). What can you say about Lee’s saxophone playing, and it’s impact on you as a musician, and on this duo’s aesthetic?
Dan Tepfer: Um (laughs) well, he’s one of the all time great saxophone players. He’s one of the people who’s really carved a path for a certain way of playing jazz saxophone. Back in the day he was really the main alternative to Charlie Parker, in terms of bringing something different to the table on the alto. One thing that draws me to Lee Konitz is his total commitment to making music in the moment. I’ve witnessed this over and over on the stage. He’s just never phoning it in. He’s always asking himself, what is happening right now and what is the most musical, best decision i can make for the music right now. That sounds simple, but it’s something that you have to constantly renew, and he’s 90 and still renewing it.
TJG: Lee, you’ve performed and recorded in a duo context many times, on many different albums (Martial Solal; Jim Hall; Elvin Jones; Joe Henderson; Gil Evans; Hal Galper; Jimmy Raney; Matt Wilson; many others). As a guitarist, I’m really interested in what your duos with Billy Bauer were like, and how they were constructed.
LK: Well if I can remember back 45 years or so…! Billy had some sort of idea or theme and I added something and we put it together for that piece, or something. And yes, I think that music does relate.
TJG: Dan, I feel that there is an impressionistic element on both of the Tepfer/Konitz duo albums. Can you describe the process and aesthetic of your improvisations on this latest record?
DT: Basically, there are like 4 approaches being taken on the album. Most of the tracks are just free-improvisation: literally we just start playing, and I picked the things that we had done that had the most structure, or in other words, where things were happening the best, but they were just completely made up on the spot. Now there’s three tracks that only feature saxophone (“Alter Ego,” “Egos Alter” and “Eager Altos”). Those were actually recorded at Lee’s apartment in 2010 so a long time ago. I just went over there with some recording gear and wanted to try this overdubbing thing, and Lee would record one voice—this was just free improvisation—and then lee would record another one while listening to what he’d already recorded. I’d always wanted to use those and I’m really glad those fit on this record.
Then, Lee suggested that I do something similar in response, so that’s where the “Pulsing Green” and “Pulsing Orange” tracks happen. I do that same thing on piano that Lee did on saxophone—record one track on piano and then record one again listening to what I play, but again, it’s just free improvisation. The 9/11 Suite is also free-improvisation but it’s the one group of pieces where there was an emotional direction. Before we started recording, Lee pointed out that we were recording on 9/11/2015 and that maybe we could do do something to honor the victims of 9/11. So those three pieces have an emotional direction; they’re not completely free in space, they have an emotional idea behind them. And then there’s “Body & Soul” where we’re just blowing over the form.
TJP: Lee, What is the difference between original material, improvisation and themes (which you just mentioned) on this record and in your work with Dan? What about songbook standards? How much improvisation; how much adherence to the form; how much looseness?
LK: Depends. It’s sometimes loose, sometimes not. It’s usually one or the other: original or improvisation—what do you think it sounds like?
TJP: Dan, I feel that there’s an element of Americana in Lee Konitz’ music, some kind of folky element. And then there are moments on this album in which you guys are really stretching closer to the work of Ornette Coleman. How do these contrasting sources relate to the Tepfer/Konitz duo music?
DT: Lee is very much an American—a Chicago kid. When I hear you say folky, I hear the word folklore, and to me that means the feeling that you get from certain musicians that what they’re relaying isn’t just some sort of calculation involving notes and chords and rhythm but something deeper; something ancestral; something more meaningful. Real folk music—not like folk music like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, which I also love, I mean styles that ancient and that are styles “of the people”—have this timeless quality. They all speak directly to the heart. I really hear people like Ornette and Lee tapping strongly into that, maybe from different places—Ornette from the blues and Lee has some blues in him, but I often hear him almost coming from opera—I often hear Enrico Caruso!
There is certainly a will with Lee (and Ornette) to always have meaning in something they are playing, and this is something that can easily be lost on jazz when people are just trying to play the right chord or scale or thinking in these technical terms. With Lee there is always, first of all, a will to be communicative in some sort of feeling and meaning, which is very similar to what happens in good folk music. Ornette was a real trailblazer in terms of establishing that as a possibility… you know it takes a lot of guts to get up there when we haven’t prepared anything and we’re just going to make something up. So that was an incredibly important force for that approach to making jazz. But you have to remember that literally the first recording of free jazz was made in 1949 by Lennie Tristano with Lee Konitz.
TJG: Lee, circling back to that question about a guitar duo with Billy Bauer, what is it like playing with other instruments besides piano, and specifically someone like Attila Zoller, who recorded your song “Thingin” which you and Tepfer have played together a lot (a contrafact based on the changes to All The The Things You Are)?
LK: Attila Zoller was a very sympathetic player, interested in what’s happening with the ensemble and in duplicating that, sort of what I’m going for, I guess. He was dear friend; I miss him.
TJG: Dan, do you guys have any plan for the show at the Gallery?
DT: No there’s never any plan with Lee. He’s famous for never having a setlist. So you get up on stage and he says you play something but don’t tell me what it is. And we’ll just start playing a tune, and we have to listen hard to what each other is playing and we each come in at some point.
Dan Tepfer and Lee Konitz celebrate the release of Decade (Verve) at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, July 26, and Friday, July 27, 2018. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $30 general admission ($15 for members), $40 reserved cabaret seating ($25 for members) for each set. FREE with SummerPass (n.b. SummerPass cannot be used to reserve tickets in advance, and since these shows are likely to sell out, we recommend you purchase an advance ticket). Purchase tickets here.