Dan Tepfer was just twenty-five years old when, after listening to Duplicity by Lee Konitz and pianist Martial Solal, he was seized by the desire to meet Konitz himself. He asked Solal for Lee’s number, called him up, and booked a session. The chemistry between Konitz and Tepfer was immediate, and a duo took flight. They premiered their work at The Jazz Gallery, and eventually released Duos with Lee on Sunnyside Records in 2009. A second album is forthcoming later this year, marking nearly a decade of sustained musical dialogue.
Fifty-five years apart, Konitz and Tepfer are a remarkable pair. Whether riding in a tour bus across France singing Lester Young solos or sharing lunch uptown near Lee’s apartment, the two have built a musical friendship founded on trust, mutual admiration, and exploration. In every sense, they are kindred spirits.
With two sets on Friday and Saturday, you’ll have plenty of time to get comfortable at The Gallery and experience the art of the duet. Over two separate phone interviews, Konitz and Tepfer discussed how they challenge each other on the bandstand, the joys of playing in harmony, and the intangible element of surprise.
The Jazz Gallery: Dan, could you tell me a little about the development of your duo with Lee?
Dan Tepfer: I’ve had the privilege of playing with Lee for almost a decade. In 2009, Lee was 81 years old, and we released our first duo record. Now, 2017 is a special year: We’re putting out a new duo record on Impulse in September, and Lee turns 90 in October. Working on this record, I realized what a gift it is to have maintained a musical relationship. Lee and I have toured all over the world. Listening back to the mix of the new record, I hear the trust that’s developed between us. There’s no substitute for time.
TJG: How does that trust manifest itself in your musical relationship?
DT: It manifests at a mysterious level. It’s like when you’re hanging out with old friends and they’re finishing each other’s sentences, you know? You can tell they know each other really well, they’re comfortable with each other. Lee is a friend, even though he’s fifty-five years older than me. He lives between New York and Cologne, and when he’s here, we get together, go to shows, hang at his house on 86th street, play together, have lunch. It’s more than just a professional relationship.
TJG: Lee, how would you describe your musical relationship with Dan, and its evolution over the last decade?
Lee Konitz: Playing duo, it’s a different perspective. Things get a little bit less complicated with just two instruments, so I particularly look forward to it beforehand. With Dan, things have gotten more familiar. We know our tendencies to react to one another. We can throw something in, knowing, somehow, what kind of result you’ll get.
TJG: Would you say Dan’s playing has changed over the years you’ve known him?
LK: It’s just gotten more interesting, you know? It’s as interesting as it can be. He’s really listening and trying to light the fire, so to speak. In terms of new sounds and approaches, he’s absolutely opened my ears in new ways. I’m very interested in what he’s doing, when he’s doing it, and how I can supplement it. I’m always in step with the music. I’m not thinking about anything else.
TJG: In a previous interview, you discussed the idea of preparation, or as Lee would put it, being “preparing to be unprepared.” What kind of trial and error have you experienced over the years?
DT: It’s changed over time. I met Lee when I was twenty-five. I had just moved to the city, and there were things in my preparation that were part of the basic craft. For the first five years, Lee would spontaneously change keys mid-tune. When you’re on a big stage and Lee switches keys on you, you’ve gotta do it without any thought. I worked on getting that fluency in order to be able to really hang in a duo context. Lee also loves to lay back on the beat. Like chamber music, we strive for a sense of agreement without letting the tempo sag. I’ve had to figure out how can I deal with this in a duo setting. Lee’s thinking about music has evolved too. He’s stopped enjoying the concept of the solo. He wants continuous counterpoint while we’re playing, and that took me a while to get used to. When you focus on your own integrity, it leads to some surprising music. Sometimes you need to tend your own garden, and trust that things will belong together.
TJG: Lee, how do you listen and keep your ears open, in order to build this continuous, linear counterpoint together?
LK: Well, I’m not blowing continuously. I’m reacting, making thoughtful, and hopefully meaningful contributions. And then I move on. Whoever sets up an interesting texture will probably be the next one to follow. Does that make sense? If you watch us at The Gallery, you’ll be able to tell whether we’re really paying attention to what’s going on, or whether we’re distracted by someone in the audience, or whatever. You’ll find that when we’re really listening, we react, and properly, so to speak. That’s the goal in this kind of playing. Nothing grandiose, except for when some real communication happens.
TJG: Have you gotten a sense that Lee’s playing has developed since you’ve known him?
DT: After Lee had a significant health event at the 2012 Melbourne Jazz Festival—and after a rather miraculous recovery—I noticed something had changed. Before the accident, he really enjoyed some pretty edgy improvising, going way out on a limb and seeing what happens. But afterwards, Lee wanted to be in harmony all of the time. He wants to be playing together. When we play standards, he wants a sense of togetherness more than ever before. You may have heard these stories of Lee playing with some great musicians, and after the tune they realize they’d been playing different tunes. Classic Lee Konitz story. These days, Lee wants chords to work together, he wants connection all the time. As someone who likes to push the envelope, it took me a while to figure out how to do that. I got back into studying harmony and counterpoint, getting a sense of ownership back about simple, triadic harmony and totally tonal music.
TJG: How did you take those steps to immerse yourself in a body of music where complete tonality is the authentic way of communicating?
DT: It coincided with something else: In 2011, I put out a record called Goldberg Variations / Variations, and started touring the next year. Since I was playing so much Bach, I really wanted to understand it better. I found a teacher in New York. It’s a great thing to study. Revisiting Bach awakened my ability to play tonal harmony with integrity right at the time I needed it. As with anything else, if you immerse yourself and allow it to become a native language, you can really own it in a different way.
TJG: There’s give and there’s take in any personal or musical relationship. You’ve spoken a lot about what you’ve learned from playing with Lee—have you opened Lee’s eyes in any musical ways?
DT: That’s hard for me to say. You have to ask Lee. He’s a real elder statesmen of jazz. Most of his peers, who he grew up playing with over the last sixty years, aren’t around anymore. It’s an amazing thing to think about, harder to imagine. Lee’s been exceptional at continuously reinventing himself by surrounding himself by younger musicians. When it’s really cooking with Lee, there’s a yin and yang. Lee’s being entirely himself, yet I’m managing to put him in an entirely new context. To me, that kind of contrast highlights his most amazing qualities. On one of the tracks from the new record, I included a SuperCollider algorithm that responds to audio in real time. On this track with Lee, I’m playing piano, but there’s an additional layer of computer music happening. And Lee just sounds so inspired, playing with that.
TJG: Lee, how often do Dan’s contributions and reactions surprise you?
LK: Quite often! There’s always something unexpected. There’s timing, choice of phrasing, things like that. It’s delightful. I look forward to these moments, these fresh situations. I always react to them as though they’re something I could never have planned, just something that happened before me. I listen and react.
TJG: If you’re playing duo with someone like Dan for nearly ten years, how can you keep that relationship fresh on the bandstand?
LK: Well, you don’t realize how many notes are available to us with different rhythms and textures, different choices of relating to each other. It’s always fresh. We learned a few lines of mine, just to have something like that, but the rest of it is always totally improvised.
TJG: Can you tell me more about these lines and textures?
LK: The better way to observe is by coming to The Jazz Gallery on Friday night.
TJG: Will do! We’re all looking forward to the show. Do you know what you’ll be playing for these shows, or do you call it when you feel it?
LK: We’ve got a few tunes, mostly standards, and I’ve written some themes on them. The rest are the standards where we start from scratch whatever way we choose to do that. Then, some magic usually sets in. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s fun to talk about it, to an extent. But after a while, I figure, you better wait and see if this makes sense to you.
Lee Konitz and Dan Tepfer play The Jazz Gallery on Friday, January 27th, and Saturday, January 28th, 2017. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($15 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.