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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Dan Tepfer

Photo by Josh Goleman, courtesy of the artist.

Adaptable and tech-savvy, pianist Dan Tepfer has been working to meet the logistical challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. In a recent interview, we asked Tepfer when he began working on projects to fill the void of lost tours and gigs. He answered: “Immediately.” His projects are swiftly gaining momentum, as Tepfer was featured in a The New York Times article published just days ago.

One of Tepfer’s longstanding friends and collaborators, the incomparable Lee Konitz, succumbed to COVID-19 at the age of 92. Speaking about Konitz, Tepfer notes that “I’m so inspired by the bar Lee set for truth and authenticity. I try to bring that into everything I do. I try not to compromise on that.” We spoke with Tepfer on the phone about his work with Konitz, his newest projects, and the development of his regular Monday live stream from Brooklyn. 

The Jazz Gallery: How has New York been for you?

Dan Tepfer: Life goes on. I’m lucky to live on Prospect Park, which so far has been—especially at off hours—easy and safe to enter. It’s not very crowded. That has been a total game changer in terms of my psychic well-being. 

TJG: Do you have favorite places in the park that you like to go?

DT: Many. I’ve lived on the park since 2006, so I know it well. Every time I go to the park, I have to walk by the Audubon Center, the boathouse in the middle on the east side. It’s so beautiful, especially at night. It has these lights lined up in front that reflect in the little lake, it’s beautiful. It feels like you’re in a different world where everything’s at peace. 

TJG: Have you been doing a lot of late night walking to keep away from the crowds? 

DT: I’ve been trying to keep it to off hours, yeah.

TJG: That’s good. The park seems like a real life-saver. I interviewed Alexis Cuadrado, who also lives on the park, and he said his family goes down every morning and plays a tag game they invented called “Corona,” where one of them is the virus and chases the others around. 

DT: Hah! That’s so dark [laughs].

TJG: Yeah, and another is the “respirator,” so if you get tagged, the ventilator person has to run over and resuscitate you. 

DT: Wow. Amazing.

TJG: Well, I was so sorry to hear about Lee Konitz passing away. One of my favorite shows I ever saw in NYC was you and Lee at The Jazz Gallery. 

DT: Thanks, man. 

TJG: How did that go down? How did you hear about it? I’m sure it was painful not to be there. 

DT: It was painful. I heard about it shortly after it happened because I got to be quite close with his family. They had been keeping me posted… You know, it’s tough, but at the same time, we take a step back, and just think about what an incredibly full, vibrant life Lee lead. You can’t ask for a lot more. The tragic thing is that he had to die alone–though I do think his son Josh was able to be with him at the end–and he spent most of the time before that alone, since they’re isolating people in the hospital. That’s really sad. It was the last two weeks of his life. I saw him March 6th, had a really good visit with him at his house. He was doing well. Can’t ask for more than that. Ninety-two-and-a-half full, creative, rich years… It’s pretty amazing.

TJG: Of course, everyone has lost the ability to play with others in person, but not a lot of people have lost collaborators and creative partners. Has it left a gap? 

DT: It had been quite some time since I had been playing a lot with Lee, since I have my own projects that are very active. But Lee was a dear friend of mine. He was like family, like a grandfather to me. It’s a big loss. But again, he was ninety-two-and-a-half, and we celebrate how lucky he was to live such a great life. 

TJG: I’ve really been enjoying watching your live streams. They’re usually at 2 P.M., so I always watch them at lunch time. There are a lot of folks out there who are struggling with finding a way to get themselves online, to get the livestream thing to feel fulfilling. It seems like you’ve hit quite a stride! Tell me a little about how you’ve arrived at the livestreams you’ve been doing. 

DT: Well, it’s taken me completely by surprise how much fun I’ve been having with them. It seems to really have compensated, to a surprising extent, for the lack of live performance in my life. I’m a performance junkie: My whole life, I’ve loved getting onstage and playing for people. When there are periods of my life when I don’t have gigs for a while, it really messes with me. I love it. I need it. It’s surprising how much the live-stream has felt similar to that. It feels like a genuine connection with an audience. It has that element of danger–since it is live–which is so important in that feeling of performance. 

I’d never done a live stream before April 6th, when an online festival asked me to participate. I had never done a live stream in my life, but I’m a tech-oriented person, so I was able to set it up pretty easily. I had already invested in a couple of 4K cameras when I was working on my Natural Machines record, which I filmed myself, and I’ve actually been recording my own records since 2011 with my own equipment, so I have good audio gear. On my first live stream on April 6th, I was amazed at what a good time I had. It was really something. I thought, “I just have to do this again,” and weekly felt like a good idea. There have been challenges along the way. I’ve had a few streams with technical issues. But generally speaking, I’ve been amazed at how generous the viewers have been with those issues, and have been touched by the feedback I’m getting. It seems that doing this is having a positive impact on peoples’ lives, which is all I can hope for at this point, as I, like many of us, feel so powerless right now. 

TJG: We, the public, gets to see you for about an hour in the afternoon during the stream. Tell me about the preparation that goes into putting it together. Musically, technically, emotionally. 

DT: Honestly, very little. I’m really an improviser. That’s why I got along so well with Lee Konitz. He was a spontaneous person, and so am I. So, I do basically no planning for the concept of the show. I might have a bit of an idea, but I don’t rehearse. Even the show I dedicated to Lee, which I did on April 20th, right after he died, I hadn’t decided that it would be devoted to Lee until I started. When it started, it felt like what I had to talk about, what I had to play about.

That’s something that’s taken me by surprise about this format. I often have to be a perfectionist in my work, and it can block me from expressing myself spontaneously and authentically. That’s why improvisation is so precious to me. In improvisation, you don’t get to second-guess yourself. What happens happens, it’s very liberating. In the past, when I post online, it’s usually a video where I can do ten takes if I want to. The beauty of the live stream is that I can circumvent my perfectionism. I’m just live, in front of the camera. There’s authenticity. It’s improvisational. The live stream has changed being online for me, from perfectionistic to open and free. 

TJG: So to your peers who feel like they wish they could be performing, but are hesitant about doing a live stream, what might you say to them?

DT: Just go for it. I have a number of friends who have been asking me how to do it. It is worth taking some time to get the best sound you can. Good sound really makes a difference. Your phone microphone won’t have the same ability to communicate to an audience, but the video from your phone camera is fine. I encourage people to work that out. If you have a Zoom recorder laying around the house, connect that to your computer and use it as a real-time sound input device. There are various microphones you can get that will connect to your phone via lightning cable. If you’re like me, you have some recording gear around the house, and you can use that. I think it’s really worth figuring it out. Aside from that, especially for us jazz musicians, just dive in and try it. 

TJG: That’s great advice. I think a lot of people will be inspired by it! So… I’ve checked out your performance calendar. Like everyone else, your schedule is blank. Give me a rundown on what you would have been doing for the next few months, and what your plans are now.

DT: Sure. Let’s look at right now. I would have just come from playing a solo concert of my Goldberg Variations project in Indianapolis, which is actually one of my few gigs that got maintained. The presenter, the American Pianists Association, were able to still pay me my fee, and decided to have the concert as a live stream, which was a godsend. It was amazing. They promoted the stream so it got over 60,000 views. Obviously not every presenter can do that. They’re an institution with an endowment and a great relationship with their patrons. But I hope the ones that have the ability can do that, because it’s a great way to support their artists. 

Anyway. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I would have played at The Gilmore in Kalamazoo, Michigan with my trio featuring Shawn Conley and Jochen Rueckert. We were going to do a mix of my own compositions and my arrangement of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella for trio. Tomorrow, I was supposed to play at Bargemusic in Brooklyn, where I was going to do Inventions/Reinventions, where I play Bach’s inventions, then create free-improvised inventions of my own for the missing keys. The 9th and 10th, I would have played at Bargemusic with the string quartet Semplice Players playing a Mozart piano concerto, as well as the New York premiere of my piano quintet, Solar Spiral. 

TJG: Wow. Would this pace have basically gone through the summer?

DT: It comes in waves. This happened to have been a busy week! On the 14th I would have played a solo concert and given a workshop in Prague, a week from today. On the 20th I would have played duo with French pianist Jean-François Zygel in Paris. In early June I was supposed to be on tour in Australia, playing the Melbourne Jazz Festival June 2nd-4th, doing my Natural Machines program in the Melbourne Planetarium. On the 6th I would be playing solo in Sydney. The 7th would have been duo in Brisbane with Kristin Berardi… On the 12th would have been a big solo concert in Lille, France: Luckily, they’re doing a live stream version of that one too. Now, none of that stuff is happening [laughs]. 

TJG: When in your life have you faced a sudden freeze like this? 

DT: Never. It’s never happened to me. The closest thing I can think of is that in my early days in New York, I had a gig as a sideman for a long tour, and the whole thing got cancelled. That was two weeks of unexpectedly not working. But this is months. Months of cancellations. 

TJG: I know you like to think big. Have you begun concocting any project ideas that will begin to fill that space, which you can do from home? 

DT: I started one immediately. March 18th, I was going crazy, I needed to do something. I started recording my #BachUpsideDown project, posting videos almost every day. That takes a huge amount of time, and I would not have been able to do it if I was touring. No way. It’s a project where I play pieces by Bach, then get my computer to do a real-time inversion of it. I want to finish that project; I have done the first half already. I want to start back up on the second half soon. 

The other project is these live streams. I intend to keep those going for as long as this is happening. I want the live stream to be more collaborative, because I’ve figured out how to play with other players who live geographically close to me in real-time with a low enough latency that you can really improvise together. I posted an example of playing Solar with Jorge Roeder. 

I have some albums that are ready to come out, too. I have a VR version of Natural Machines that I want to publish as an app. I also have a duo record with Miguel Zenón that’s done. I want to put that out soon. We have to think about how to do that, exactly, and whether we’ll delay it. When things start to open up a little bit more, I want to record the Stravinsky project, the arrangement of Pulcinella with the trio. 

With this time, I want to keep developing. I’m so lucky to have a Disklavier piano at home, so I can keep working with my Natural Machines project. A few live-streams ago, the one I dedicated to Lee Konitz, I stayed up all night before, coding this visualization that allows me to make music using the orbits of planetary systems. I have tons of other ideas for those projects. I want to keep developing those. The live stream allows me to have deadlines, and keep sharing with the world. 

TJG: You have a lot of great stuff on the horizon. 

DT: I want to make the most of the situation. I feel super privileged. I have what I need at home. I can do a lot alone as a pianist. I happen to be tech-oriented and that makes it natural for me to figure out things like low-latency duo playing. I don’t have a family, I don’t have children: My friends who have kids are in quite a different situation. So, I want to honor the fact that I am able to make quite a bit of music right now by making it, and sharing it.