Dan Tepfer: ‘Intimacy is what music is about’

Dan Tepfer‘s status as one of the finest and most acclaimed pianists of his generation could be secured by the mere fact that he’s been chosen by Lee Konitz to be his musical partner in a series of duets, for more than a decade. But the pianist is much more than the protege of the legendary saxophonist; balancing between contemporary classical and jazz, he’s a brilliant composer, a master improviser and an avid explorer of his instrument – which he now managed to turn into his partner, thanks to modern technology. Oh, and he’s currently on tour around Australia, presenting his multifaceted artistic persona.

What are you presenting in your tour?

It’s a nice combination of things. I was originally invited by the Canberra International Music Festival to present my Goldberg Variations / Variationsprogram, in which I play all 30 of Bach’s original variations and follow each one with an improvised variation of my own. The festival also decided to have me do parts of my brand new project, Natural Machines, where I’ve written computer programs that improvise with me in real time and generate visuals that represent what’s happening in the music. We added shows around that – three trio concerts with Sam Anning and Alex Hirlian, in Sydney, Canberra and Wollongong, presenting the music from my latest trio album, Eleven Cages. The tour started off in Brisbane with a concert with the wonderful singer Kristin Berardi and bassist Sam Anning at the Doo-Bop, and at the end of the tour, I’m doing a solo concert at JazzLab in Melbourne. Throughout the tour I’m also doing workshops and masterclasses at various universities and conservatories. You can find all the dates here.

photo Judy Natal ’18

How would you describe your rapport with Kristin Berardi, Sam Anning and the other musicians that you are performing with?

Kristin and I met in 2006 in Montreux, Switzerland, the year she won the vocal competition there and I won the solo piano competition. We haven’t had many chances to play since then, but we’ve always hit if off, both personally and musically, so I’m excited to get to play with her again. Sam Anning I’ve played with a fair amount when he lived in New York, and he’s a wonderful musician. Alex comes highly recommended and I’m looking forward to getting to know him musically. My recent trio compositions (from my 2017 release Eleven Cages, with Nate Wood and Thomas Morgan) can be a little thorny, so it will be fun to explore those with Sam and Alex. The rest of what I’m doing in Australia on this tour is solo.

You are doing many solo shows; what kind of mindset does a solo performance require?

I’ve been doing so much solo performing now for so long that it feels normal to me at this point. But I remember when I first started doing solo shows, in my early twenties, feeling like the bottom had fallen out; feeling very alone, and with nowhere to hide. It can be scary, but I kind of like being scared – it heightens my focus. And what’s wonderful about solo is that you’re free to go wherever you choose. The other thing I love about playing solo is that it makes playing with other musicians feel easier in comparison, like a vacation. It’s always amazing to me to realise, when playing with other people, that I can just not play for a while, and that’ll be okay! When you play solo, you have to be on 100 per cent of the time.

Still, despite how much experience I have at this point playing solo, if I’m playing the Goldberg Variations / Variations program, I do need to prepare pretty carefully. It’s a 90 minute program of some of the most musically and technically difficult keyboard music out there, interwoven with improvisations that need to be genuinely in the moment and fresh.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I absolutely need to eat properly before the show. If I don’t, there’s a high chance I’ll just run out of juice at some point in the concert, which is painful. Bach’s music requires total presence of mind and spirit at all times.

You are often working in smaller settings; how does the element of intimacy relate to your music?

In some ways, intimacy is what music is about, to me. The music I love speaks to me at what feels like a personal level, and when I perform, I’m trying hard to create a meaningful connection with every person in the audience. For my taste, this is easier to do with fewer people on stage. The more people on stage and the more things need to be pre-planned – the less room there is for improvisation. Playing solo, duo or even trio, there’s just a lot more space to follow the spirit of the moment, which I think is something audiences can feel – they can feel whether we are really responding to them, to the acoustics of the room, to the rhythm of people’s breathing at that moment. And that changes everything. It takes us out of the noise that surrounds us daily, with our notifications and our devices, and brings us back to the moment.

What is important to you when you improvise?

I’ve often asked myself why we improvise at all. Why not, after all, as people have done throughout the history of music, pre-plan every aspect of what youre going to do? In what way does it really help not to? Lee Konitz, whom I’ve now been playing with for over twelve years, and – for those of your readers who may be newer to jazz – is one of the very greatest improvisers of the history of jazz, likes to say: “If you’re really going to improvise, you’ve got to be prepared to be unprepared. And that requires a lot of preparation!” So there’s this kind of zen contradiction at the heart of improvisation: you want to work hard at your craft in order to be able to speak the language of music fluently and even virtuosically, but you don’t want to prepare what exactly you’re going to say. And why? Well, when we really commit to improvisation (the word literally means ‘unforeseen’), we commit to listening hard, with a certain kind of humility. We leave ourselves open to the spirit of discovery, to epiphanies that are specific to that moment in time. And there’s something genuinely powerful about that, and it is incredibly rewarding when you follow it to the end because it allows one to connect deeply with others, in the only way that is really possible, which is in the moment.

What is the most important thing that you have learned about yourself, while working with Lee Konitz?

I should start by saying what an immense privilege it’s been to get to work so closely with Lee over the past twelve years. We’ve made three records, and I’ve learned so much about music through working with him. I think the greatest thing that I’ve learned is that there’s no value in ever playing a note you didn’t really mean. It’s obvious when you think about it: in conversation, no one likes to listen to someone who blabs on and on without there being careful meaning behind each word. We love hearing someone who chooses their words carefully in order to speak their mind and their heart. There’s just not enough time in the world for superfluous words or notes. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is that I’ve learned that the following is true: if I get on stage and commit to playing only what I hear, only what arises naturally within me, and nothing else – and if I relinquish any need to impress – that’s when I will play my very best music, and when I’ll connect the most with my audience.

photo Nicolas Joubard ’18

When did you discover your voice as an artist?

In some ways I feel like I discovered my voice when I was a kid, just sitting at the piano, making sounds, and that my daily fight, as an experienced musician, is to reclaim that child’s voice every time I play the instrument. I try to find shortcuts to reclaiming that voice: if, like many artists, I’ve been playing my instrument so much that I become a little numb to the beauty of its sound, then I find that playing another instrument for a while, especially one I don’t play all that well, can quickly reconnect me to the simple joy of making a sound that I intended. Also this is where my Natural Machines project comes in, because at the root of it is this idea that, by writing computer programs that improvise with me in real time, I’m turning the piano, this instrument I know inside and out, into a genuinely new instrument, one that constantly surprises me. This also tends to reconnect me to that childlike innocence with respect to music – and that’s where magic happens.

How did you get into jazz?

My grandfather was a jazz pianist on the West Coast, and my mom – professionally an opera singer, but also a life-long jazz singer – sang standards with me when I was still a kid. So it’s in my blood. What jazz means to me is improvisation first of all, but also a whole constellation of cultural ideas about what it means to make music together. For example, I’ve heard from more than one master of jazz that while in classical music it may be that rhythm exists to serve the melodic and harmonic elements, in jazz this hierarchy is reversed, and the melody and harmony exist to serve the rhythm, which is paramount. Rhythm is infinitely profound – the whole universe is built on it – and I love the emphasis jazz places on it, because I’ve learned through experience that the more one gives to rhythm – and its a life-long pursuit -, the more it gives back.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’.

Because I just arrived in Oz from the US, and I’m still jet-lagged!

See Dan Tepfer perform

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