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.
TJG: How did it come to pass that you were on stage together?
DT: It’s simple, actually. Years ago, I played a trio gig in Paris, and he came out to hear it. He was really nice, we chatted afterwards, and we talked about playing together. Then last winter, less than a year ago, I heard him at the Vanguard with Peter Bernstein. I was blown away by his playing, and that was a quintet with Sullivan Fortner on piano: It was a really nice band. It’s rare that I come away thinking, “Man, the drummer!” But I was blown away by what Leon was doing. After the gig, we talked again about doing some playing. At the same time, I’d been getting more and more interested in doing full concerts of free improvisation. It was something I was into in 2008 and 2009, when I did some fully improvisational tours, and put out a record called “Twelve Free Improvisations in Twelve Keys.” But it’s not something I’ve done a lot of since then. So when I saw him, I immediately thought “I want to do a gig with Leon where we’re playing totally free.” He was into it, and it was one of the easiest gigs to set up. We had a great time, and the response was amazing.
TJG: Tell me a little about what went down on stage that night at the Sunset/Sunside.
DT: I’ve been working for the last four or five years on getting a good command of tonal harmony, in the sense that my goal is to be able to improvise large-scale harmonic structures over long periods of time that have real structural integrity. So, I want to play free, but also want to invent and compose in real time. It’s not just “whatever comes to mind.” I want things to make sense. The beautiful thing about playing with Leon is that it feels like each thing he plays amplifies that mission of ‘wanting things to make sense.’ He does this great thing where he not only plays drums and percussion, but does body rhythm as well. He plays his body with his hands, hits his chest, his stomach, uses his body as a percussion instrument. He sings as well, and he’s a beautiful singer. Having those possibilities as a duo, to expand from piano and drums into body percussion and voice, creates all of these other textures. So at Sunside, it went a lot of different places, and it felt very special.
TJG: Considering Leon’s empathy behind the drums, and your own goals regarding structure and harmony, how do those things interact on stage? Did you ever talk with Leon, and say “I tend to go in this long-form harmonic direction,” or something like that?
DT: The whole idea with trying to use harmony in that way is that, if you get it deep enough in yourself, it becomes a language. It allows you to respond to whatever’s happening, using a structure that has integrity. We didn’t talk about anything, and I don’t really want to talk about anything: It’s about following the moment. Personally, I’m thinking about these structural ideas. The beautiful thing about doing piano and drums is that we have this interaction that’s deeply rhythmic, structural, and dramatic, but there’s no interference at the harmonic or melodic level, which is a pretty amazing combination if you think about it.
TJG: When you’re improvising this way, how important is discipline? As you’re building these long-form structures in real time, you probably have moments where you hear a chord and say “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if… No, I have to stick with my original intention.”
DT: That’s a great question. This interplay between freedom and constraints has been important to me in my work for a long time. We spoke about this regarding the Eleven Cages album, and it’s present in the Natural Machines project, where I’m doing free improvisation but the computer has rigid constraints. In this context of free improvisation, it’s always a balance. That’s what I love about it. At the end of the day, it’s akin to sitting in meditation. You have thoughts that come, and you want to acknowledge and see them, but you don’t want to hang on them or get attached to them. If you’re going to do free improvisation for an hour, you’re basically walking a tightrope the whole time, balancing between structure and letting your intuition take you places, which is essential. Even Schoenberg said something like “If your system is overly prescriptive, you’ve got a problem.” There have to be degrees of freedom that are decided by intuition and spirituality, to find balance within the structure. If you’re building a building, you don’t want the building to fall down. You’ve got to use the right materials, your beams have to be in the right places. It’s a combination of all those things, and that’s what’s exciting about that kind of work to me.
TJG: I’m always curious when musicians use these dire metaphors, you know? If you build a building wrong, things will fall, and people will get hurt. What happens on stage if you “fail” in that way? I’m sure in your career of improvisation, there have been moments where things have fallen.
DT: Big time. As musicians, we’re very lucky that the stakes are a lot lower than building a building [laughs]. Another example: There’s this new film Free Solo about Alex Honnold, the rock climber. I used to do a lot of rock climbing, so I loved that movie, and the whole question about free soloing, or climbing without ropes. In his case, his stakes, like the stakes of an architect, are very high: If he messes up, he falls to his death. We’re lucky in music that we can take more risks than these guys can. That’s part of the great thing about jazz. Control and constraints are interesting, but we constantly want to be pushing against them. For me, it’s more akin to surfing. These guys are riding a wave, and there’s a lot about a wave that you can’t control. You don’t create the wave: You ride it. It’s kind of boring if a surfer tries to simply ride the wave and not fall. You want them to, yes, not fall, but on the other hand, push against it and do fun things with it. If they do fall, it’s not the end of the world. It’s a balance.
The way I experience failure in free improvisation on stage is as a spiritual failure. In many ways, I think musical failures are only failures if they’re spiritual failures. What I mean by that is a lapse in listening, a lapse in empathy, an egotistical moment. Things like that can really ruin the music, and are embarrassing when you listen to them after. It hurts, it makes you cringe. If you stay present at a spiritual level, as long as you’re in shape, musically–it’s a bit of a sport–the music will take care of itself.
Pianist Dan Tepfer and percussionist Leon Parker play The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, November 27, 2018. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.