One of today’s leading pianists and composers, Dan Tepfer has worked with some of the great names in jazz, including a decade-long collaboration with saxophone icon Lee Konitz. His most recent recordings include Decade (July 2018), his second album with Lee Konitz, and Eleven Cages (June 2017), with the Dan Tepfer Trio, featuring Thomas Morgan and Nate Wood. He gained wide recognition for his 2011 album Goldberg Variations / Variations, in which he plays each of Bach’s variations and follows each with an improvised variation of his own. His current project, Acoustic Informatics, uses a concert piano that can be controlled by a computer, for which he has written programs that respond in real time to his improvisations. This is an edited version of an interview conducted in Paris in October 2017.
Spencer Matheson: In November 1990, Dizzy Gillespie said, “When I heard Charlie Parker for the first time in 1940, man, I had never heard anybody play like that. I mean, he sounded really different. So we locked ourselves up in that hotel room and played all day. We didn’t even call it bebop yet. The word came about because people didn’t know what tunes we were playing. So folks would come up to us and say, ‘Hey, man, play that tune, you know the one you played the other night, which goes like: Ye de bop, do dob it dop, be bop, doo doo.’ So that’s how they started calling our music bebop.” First of all, I love that idea of listening to Charlie Parker play for the first time. It gives me goosebumps to think of somebody who sounded that new and, I think, still sounds that radically new. And then it reminds me of the first time I saw you—I had tickets to go see Geri Allen and Kurt Rosenwinkel in 2012, and you and Lee Konitz played the first set. I’d never heard of you. To be honest, I wasn’t keen on sitting through an opening act. And I remember after the first few chords you played, I perked up and thought, “Wow, this is the real deal.”
Dan Tepfer: Oh, man, that’s so kind, thank you.
Have you had that experience of sitting down and hearing somebody and thinking, wow, this is the real deal?
That’s a great question. I guess it all depends on what you mean by different. What I’ve had is the experience of hearing somebody where all the noise and bullshit falls away and I am reminded of what is essential in music. Have I had the experience of hearing somebody who sounds radically different? I feel like in some ways I’ve listened to so much music—and I just love so many different kinds of music, I love crazy atonal chromatic music, I love folk music from all over the world—that it feels like I don’t hear much nowadays where there isn’t a clear reference for me. But I have heard amazing humans playing in a way that is just totally disarming.
So not necessarily somebody who sounded entirely new, but just somebody who made you sit up and be like, “Wow, this is it.”
Yeah, big time. Truth is truth. I’m very privileged to play with Lee Konitz, who really, to this day—we played for his ninetieth birthday at Kennedy Center a couple weeks ago—I’ll be playing with him, and I’ll just have to look up sometimes and think, “Damn, that’s the shit.” It just doesn’t get old. But there’re lots of other people who manage to do that. One of my favorite pianists right now is Sullivan Fortner. He’s got that amazing combination of very deep craft and knowledge, and then he just manages to make it all seem like it’s flowing directly from the heart in a very truthful and natural way. When I hear him, I definitely get that feeling. That’s really one of the great things that jazz has to offer: Since it’s all real time and improvisation, you’re really getting a direct window into somebody’s soul. Thank God I have those moments. But I was also thinking, in terms of things sounding different, that’s one of the feelings I get when I work on some of my algorithms. Sometimes I get just totally surprised by them and I really do get that feeling of, “Damn, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this before.” That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about that stuff, because that’s a very precious feeling.
Dave Brubeck in 1990—apparently all my quotes are from 1990—said, “I spent most of my time alone as a kid lying under a tank on a cattle ranch listening to an engine pumping water and being mesmerized by its fascinating, arrhythmic sounds. Or if I wasn’t doing that, I was riding horseback and singing songs against the gait of the horse. And that’s the way I spent endless hours—just letting these crazy cross-rhythms play in my head over and over.” Sonny Rollins talks about locking himself in a closet as a kid for hours on end and just playing and being in that world. You grew up with American parents in Paris, do you have any sense of how that might have made you into a different musician than if you’d grown up, say, in Brooklyn, where you live now, or in Oregon, where your family is originally from?
I think one of the biggest factors in the way that I grew up was not having a TV and not being exposed to a ton of pop culture. I went to a normal school, so I had friends who would fill me in on that, or I used to listen to the radio on headphones as I was going to sleep, stuff like that. But ultimately, I feel like I grew up pretty distant from pop culture. It seemed like a thing that existed out there, but wasn’t particularly real. Whereas I’ve realized that a lot of people grew up with pop culture being the dominant culture and having real value. I guess I grew up with it not having real value, which is not to say that it doesn’t have value. There are lots of things about pop culture that I think are amazing, and there’s a lot of great pop music. But that’s just not the way I grew up.
So I think it definitely made me spend a lot of time entertaining myself. I was an only child. There was a piano in the house. I spent a lot of time playing piano, a lot of time reading books. That definitely has a big influence on who I am—a bigger influence than anything else. If I’d grown up in Brooklyn or in Eugene, though, I don’t imagine that it would have been all that different. I don’t feel like growing up in France had that huge of an impact on who I am as a musician, although one of the cool things about growing up in Paris was that I was able to study classical music really seriously from the age of six. At the same time, I was pretty strongly exposed to jazz through my grandfather, who was a jazz pianist on the West Coast. If I’d grown up in Eugene—I don’t know, I was going to say maybe it would’ve been harder to get good access to classical training, but then again, I have friends who grew up there who are great musicians.
As somebody who knows the Paris and New York scenes as well as anyone, what do you make of those respective scenes?
What’s really interesting is how much the French one has changed. I might be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am. The attention to craft and detail has just really exploded here over the last fifteen years. I think when I was growing up in the nineties, there was more of a focus here on self-expression and concept, which is great, I dig that, but maybe less about really getting all the details of the music exactly where they should be. I think maybe it’s a result of the internet and the fact that ultimately, what goes viral on the internet is almost always pretty well-crafted, because stuff that’s not well-crafted—people don’t really like it that much. It just doesn’t sound good. And so, maybe because of that, there’s this whole young generation of French musicians who are really taking the music seriously and dealing with all those details.
There’s a simplicity to the lines on your most recent trio album, Eleven Cages—it feels more pared down than some of your previous work. There’s the obvious influence of Lee Konitz, but are there other influences there that we’re missing? And on the question of influence, there are the obvious ways in which we talk it, people you try to emulate, whose solos you transcribe, what have you. But are there subtler ways influence works in music—can you be influenced by something, but only realize it well after the fact, for instance? Are there ways in which reacting against things is also a kind of influence?
That’s a very complicated question. Influence has generally worked on me in a very intuitive way. I’ve always listened to a lot of music. Especially when I was younger, I’d listen to tons of music, and if a passage interested me, I would listen to it four or five times until I had a good idea of what was happening musically. But I actually haven’t done all that much transcribing. So I think influence works more at an organic level for me. Of course, there are lots of kinds of music that I’ve really studied. But when I play, even though I’ve played a ton of Bach, I don’t try to sound like Bach. Influence for me works at the level of process rather than information. For example, the influence of Lee Konitz that you hear on my record—stylistically, my record has nothing to do with most of Lee’s music, it sounds completely different. But what you’re hearing very correctly is all these years of me playing with Lee and having absolutely no patience for extraneous notes. Lee is one of the world’s greatest masters of playing only what matters, and nothing else. That is very important to me at this point of my life and something I really tried to make real on Eleven Cages, to be able to stand behind every note that I play. And not only that, but be able to feel like every note is necessary. There again, we’re talking about an influence that is at the level of process rather than style or even content. It’s Lee having a certain approach to music that I value and that I want to be able to use in my music, even though I am making drastically different music.
A lot of my greatest influences have worked in similar ways. For example, I spent all these years playing Bach and studying Bach, and the thing I take away from it isn’t, “I want to be able to play or improvise in that style,” it’s “I want to be able to use the building blocks of his music in my own music, but to make completely different music.” The building blocks of Bach are this incredibly sophisticated command of tonal harmony. When I first started playing the Goldberg Variations, it took me a few years to realize I didn’t have anything like that kind of command or even understanding of tonal harmony. So I dove back in and studied harmony and counterpoint really seriously with a teacher in Manhattan for three or four years. That has completely transformed my understanding of that stuff. Same with Ligeti, one of my favorite composers—he was always using processes in his pieces. Most of them have some kind of overriding rule or several rules that govern how the music works. That’s an idea I’ve used a lot. That’s the idea behind Eleven Cages, using constraints on the creative process. There is nothing without influence. We’d be cave people beating on rocks if we didn’t have the culture around us—that’s everything. For me, as I said, it acts explicitly at the level of process, and then more implicitly at the level of content. Those are things that I take in mostly by listening and then just letting them slowly seep into my subconscious.
I think you say in the liner notes of Eleven Cages that there’s something about cages that magnifies freedom, and you’re talking about the process that you had in each of those eleven tunes, even if two of them are kind of free. I wonder if it’s not just the constraint of the cage, but the discomfort of the cage. It reminds me a little bit of the boredom you described experiencing as a child, not having TV, and that boredom generating ideas, giving you a desire to escape. It also brings to mind Keith Jarrett talking about the Köln Concert and not having slept the night before and hating that piano that he played on, that Bösendorfer, that it wasn’t the right size, and he hated the sound of it, but he just said, “Fuck it, I’m going to get what I can out of the constraints, even though I’m uncomfortable.”
Because the presenter of the concert, who was apparently an attractive young woman, convinced him to.
Oh, is that true?
He was leaving, he had decided to cancel. He was in his car leaving and she managed to catch him and convince him.
That’s funny, I read about it recently on the Grammy site. He gives an account of it, but he doesn’t mention that.
So the question is about the discomfort.
Yeah, whether it’s partly the discomfort of constraints that leads to a kind of release, a kind of escape.
I think that’s very possible. Although, what kind of discomfort is it if you actually like it? Are we talking about masochism at this point? But I think what you brought up about boredom is so important; this is one of the things that our society is going to have to contend with it at some point. I firmly believe that real creativity comes from boredom. Creativity is our natural response to boredom. You see children, when they get bored, they don’t just lie around being bored, as long as they don’t have tablets or phones or whatever, what they do is invent little games for themselves. They invent constraints. Kids do this entirely naturally. They get bored and they make a system for themselves, they make a process for themselves, and then they operate within it. Or they decide to break the rules—but the point is that you set rules up. That’s real creativity. Creativity is a way we make ourselves less bored. So the question becomes, how does that operate in a society that doesn’t allow people to become bored? It’s got to diminish our creativity. Obviously there are so many people in the world that there are probably enough who understand what I just said and who are giving themselves sufficient mental space, or who are ambitious enough that they’ll find a way to harness their creativity. I’m convinced, though, at a broader statistical level, that we must be diminishing our overall creativity by not allowing ourselves to get bored.
Are you easily distracted? Has your power of concentration been affected by smartphones and the internet?
Definitely. It’s something that I have to actively fight against. I try to have everything off for at least four hours every day. Last summer, I did a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and had extremely limited internet and phone access for five weeks. That was great. I definitely felt the noise falling away from my brain. I’ve gone to Cuba three times to study percussion out there and nothing works out there, I’ve got to go to a hotel and pay fifteen bucks for maybe an hour of very slow internet. My phone doesn’t work, and I feel totally refreshed when I do that.
And to come back to your question about discomfort, I don’t know if I experience it as discomfort. I think if it feels like discomfort, then maybe it’s the wrong cage, because ultimately if you’re going to really operate well within a system—for example, Bach and the rules of counterpoint—you have to love that system.
Have other people sometimes been able to point to things in your playing that you yourself haven’t been aware of?
Well, people have said that they see a certain thing or feel a certain thing when I’m playing that I didn’t intend. I mean, art is in the eye of the beholder. Everybody perceives things in their own way. But I guess you mean more at a technical level, right?
I was thinking of it that way.
Well, at the level of impression, I’m just grateful that people had some kind of reaction, and hopefully a positive or an enlightening one. But that’s really just as much about them as it is about the music. Maybe the music created an opportunity for that to happen. But in technical terms, I don’t know if that’s happened very much, at least since my mid-twenties. People certainly have been able to point out flaws in my playing that I was not aware of. That’s happened, and still continues to happen, thankfully. If you have peers who can point things out to you that you didn’t realize could be improved, that’s a real gift.
I’ll try out a question in the spirit of association and improvisation. Maybe I should preface it by saying that I remember a CBC jazz critic saying, when I was a teenager, of Pat Metheny’s music, that it was cinematic and visual. That struck me as silly at the time, but it also stuck with me, and I think I kind of know what is meant by that now. While I was listening to Eleven Cages, I felt like I could hear Paris, and not only Paris, but Paris at night.
I like that. I mean, it’s got to be there, right? I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris—eighteen years of my life.
And you’re not up that early in the morning.
That’s for sure. But I also think, you live in Paris and you know the city well, and you also know me pretty well, so there’s a lot of power of suggestion there. Although, actually somebody in the US said to me that they thought that my album sounded French. They didn’t mean it in a negative way, they were praising the music, but they said that at some emotional level, it sounded kind of French. I think there’s a kind of sensibility in France that I grew up with. You can really see it in the works of composers like Ravel or Debussy, or even Messiaen—there’s a kind of passion for small epiphanies. I don’t know exactly how to put it, but there’s maybe a joy in moderate emotions, if that makes any sense, that I think is pretty French, or at least typical of a certain type of French culture that I grew up with. And I think that’s got to be there in my music somehow.
You mentioned reading a lot as a child. Does literature still affect you, affect the way you make music?
Yeah, I still love to read. One of the books that recently affected me the most was Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and while I can’t say that it had any explicit influence on my art, I did find it so disarming. Such a beautiful and pure description of love; I think it definitely freed up my creativity a bit for a little while. Again, the idea of not second-guessing things too much and just honoring the ideas that come. Nabokov has been an influence. I really love his writing, and I think there’s something specifically in the way that he combines erudite sophistication with badass fuck-you-ness in his writing. He can be biting and mean and kind of cruel too, but he also has a ton of empathy all the time and he doesn’t shy away from using his unbelievable vocabulary and being kind of fancy.
Yeah, he’s not Lee Konitzian. It’s not pared down.
Yeah, he’s more like Martial Solal or something. I’ve gotten a lot of out of that. There’s a lot of balance in his work. Maybe the fancier the words are, the more down-to-earth or even crass the subject matter needs to be. So that idea of balance. That’s important in music, too: Things always need to be balanced out. Just at the most simple level—there are many more complex ways of looking at this—but at the most simple level, if one musician, say in a trio, starts to do some pretty sophisticated polyrhythms or counter-rhythms, probably the other players will want to become simpler, rather than more complex. That’s what the really sophisticated, experienced musicians do. The less experienced musicians tend to go with one another, and that just makes things a little one-dimensional. But the more experienced players create something—it’s not that they’re not going with one another, they’re very aware of what the other person is doing, but instead of just doing the same thing, they’re creating something that makes it even better, a counterline. And sometimes that means going simpler when the other person is going more complicated. I feel a lot of that layering happening in Nabokov. I remember when I first started doing free improvisation with Lee Konitz, he pointed out that I had a tendency to go with him when he had an idea, to mimic it or follow it, and he said, “I think as long as we each have a strong idea or strong line of our own, the combined effect will work too.”
How do you see this moment historically in jazz?
My first reaction to that is, I don’t give a shit. Arthur Taylor in Notes and Tones asks almost all the greatest jazz musicians what they think of the word jazz—and these are the greatest, these are the real deal musicians, these are not people who have some kind of entrenched political reason to create a polemic around the word jazz. These are people who are about the music. Duke Ellington is interviewed in that book, and he said, “There are two kinds of music, the good kind and the other kind.” Almost everybody Taylor interviewed had very nuanced and ambivalent reactions to the word. Some felt the word itself comes from very crass origins. Others just didn’t want to think of their music in terms of a style. But the more important point here is that I don’t think any of the musicians I deeply admire really care that much about the word “jazz.” They care about music; they care about good music. I personally value the tools of jazz. I think it’s an incredible body of knowledge that has been developed over the last century of how to improvise in real time, how to make music up in real time. In the last few years, I’ve dived a little bit into the classical tradition of improvisation, and really the jazz tradition is in some way similar, but also very different. There’s so much more emphasis in jazz improvisation on self-expression. A lot of the classical tradition of improvisation is almost like a parlor trick, where you learn how to do certain things, improvise in the style of certain composers from the past. So, anyway, I personally value the tools of jazz, and I want to learn as much as I can about them, but the reason I want to learn about them is not because of some fetishistic attitude towards the jazz tradition, but just because they’re useful and powerful in creating music, no matter what that music is called. So, yeah, I just—I really don’t care.
Dan Tepfer was born in 1982 in Paris to American parents. Now based in New York City, he has performed with some of the leading lights in jazz, including veteran saxophone luminary Lee Konitz. His discography ranges from probing solo improvisation and intimate duets to richly layered trio albums of original compositions. On his Sunnyside/Naïve album Goldberg Variations / Variations, he performs J.S. Bach’s masterpiece and improvises upon it to “build a bridge across centuries and genres” (Wall Street Journal) in “an impressive feat that keeps coming back to a hearty and abiding respect” (New York Times). As a composer, he is a recipient of the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for works including Concerto for Piano and Winds, premiered in the Prague Castle with himself on piano, and Solo Blues for Violin and Piano, premiered at Carnegie Hall. He is currently working on integrating computer-driven algorithms into his improvisational approach. Awards include first prize and audience prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival Solo Piano Competition, first prize at the East Coast Jazz Festival Competition, and the Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association.
Spencer Matheson has published fiction in Conjunctions and an essay about Mark Turner in Music and Literature No. 8. He lives in Paris and teaches at the École Normale Supérieure.
Banner image © Nicolas Joubard, 2018