Dan Tepfer has made a name for himself as a pianist-composer of wide-ranging ambition, individuality and élan — “a remarkable musician” in the words of the Washington Post and one “who refuses to set himself limits” in those of France’s Télérama. The New York City-based Tepfer, born in 1982 in Paris to American parents, has performed with some of the leading lights in jazz, including extensively with veteran saxophone luminary Lee Konitz. As a leader, Tepfer has crafted a discography already striking for its breadth and depth, ranging from probing solo improvisation and intimate duets to trio albums rich in their melodic allure. His 2011 Sunnyside/Naïve album Goldberg Variations / Variations saw the prize-winning pianist performing J.S. Bach’s masterpiece as well as improvising upon it to “build a bridge across centuries and genres” as the Wall Street Journal put it. Among his awards are the first prize and audience prize at the 2006 Montreux Jazz Festival Solo Piano Competition, first prize at the 2006 East Coast Jazz Festival Competition, and first prize at the 2007 competition of the American Pianists Association. Tepfer was voted a Best New Artist in JazzTimes in 2010 and a Rising Star in DownBeat in 2011. His newest release is Small Constructions, an album of duets with multi-reed player Ben Wendel, due from Sunnyside Records in March 2013.
One of his generation’s extraordinary talents, Dan Tepfer has made a name for himself as a pianist-composer of wide-ranging ambition, individuality and élan — “a remarkable musician” in the words of the Washington Post and one “who refuses to set himself limits” in those of France’s Télérama. The New York City-based Tepfer, born in 1982 in Paris to American parents, has performed with some of the leading lights in jazz; and as a leader, he has crafted a discography already striking for its breadth and depth — ranging from probing solo improvisation and intimate duets to trio albums rich in their melodic allure. Tepfer’s acclaimed Sunnyside/Naïve album Goldberg Variations / Variations saw the pianist performing J.S. Bach’s masterpiece as well as improvising upon it to “build a bridge across centuries and genres” as the Wall Street Journal put it. New York magazine called the album “elegant, thoughtful and thrilling,” while DownBeat declared it “one of the more audacious, accomplished recordings of 2011.”
Tepfer’s newest release is Small Constructions — an album of duets with multi-reed player and Kneebody co-founder Ben Wendel, due from Sunnyside Records in March 2013. A set of songs without words, Small Constructions is a multi-tracked, multi-layered production featuring Tepfer and Wendel playing multiple instruments in multiple styles, extending from fresh versions of Monk tunes to pieces based on Handel and Messiaen motifs, from a standard given an artful makeover to originals that underscore the duo’s melodic flair. Tepfer says that he and Wendel “finish each other’s sentences musically.” They recorded the album over a few days in the Yamaha artist space in Manhattan with some favorite tools at hand: an excellent piano, a Fender Rhodes, three kinds of saxes, a bassoon and a melodica. “It was a DIY affair — we used our own recording gear, and we didn’t worry too much about how it would fit into a specific category or genre,” Tepfer says. “The experience resulted in songs that express our mutual love of jazz, classical and pop.”
Tepfer, whose mother was an opera singer and grandfather a jazz pianist, began classical piano studies at age 6 at the Paris Conservatoire-Paul Dukas. The young musician took a circuitous route to a jazz career, first earning a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from Scotland's University of Edinburgh (with his thesis on “Numerical Simulations of Galactic Superwinds”). He played extensively on the jazz scene in college and even enjoyed a brief stint as an opera conductor. After graduating in 2005 from Boston’s New England Conservatory, where he completed his masters under the guidance of Danilo Perez, Tepfer moved to New York and quickly became an in-demand player, performing with such innovators as Steve Lacy, Paul Motian, Bob Brookmeyer, Joe Lovano, Ralph Towner, Billy Hart and Mark Turner. Tepfer was introduced by Martial Solal, one of his mentors in France, to Lee Konitz. The veteran saxophone luminary and the young pianist hit it off at once, sparking a partnership that would yield duet performances on both sides of the Atlantic and the 2009 Sunnyside album Duos with Lee.
Duos With Lee — described as “a benchmark of human potential” by Jazz Inside — embodies the notion of jazz as an artistic exchange across the generations. In concert, Tepfer and Konitz have performed the pianist’s original compositions and applied their interpretive touch to the Great American Songbook, a specialty of the octogenarian saxophonist. Yet it was freely improvised pieces that constituted most of Duos with Lee. “We recorded a bunch of standards in the studio, but as we selected the takes, I was struck most by the free pieces,” Tepfer says. “They captured the mysterious, searching quality in Lee’s playing. When you don’t know what’s coming next, the only thing you can do is listen hard, and that’s what Lee has been so incredible at his whole life. He isn’t just comfortable going into unexplored territory — he actively seeks it out by associating himself with musicians who think that way. To me, that’s the essence of jazz: It’s about listening without preconceptions and going where the music wants to go.”
The Village Voice described Tepfer’s Goldberg Variations / Variations this way: “In a ballsy move that resounds with an unabashed yen for balance, the insightful pianist concocts a freeprov ditty for each of Bach’s most famous miniatures. On the classical side, the 60 tracks are a blend of grace and power. On the jazz side, they’re built with daring and élan. It’s easy to respect both.” With Bach using the same chord progression throughout the Goldberg Variations, his musical process wasn't as different from jazz as it might seem. “That is really what we do in jazz, particularly when playing standards,” Tepfer explains. “We take the chord progression of a tune, and it’s often as simple as Bach’s Aria in the ‘Goldbergs,’ and we make variations on it. I’ll play the same song with Lee Konitz on tour night after night — say, ‘All the Things You Are’ — and it will be really different every night. So if you recorded all of those and put them end to end, it might sound like what Bach did with the ‘Goldbergs,’ taking one simple piece of material and weaving all these different emotional states into it. With my improvisations, it was a case of: How much more diversity can I get out of this chord progression? Also, what’s really important to me as an improviser is to have a voice. So I'm reacting to Bach with my own tone, my own vocabulary.”
The prelude to Tepfer’s Bachian explorations was his solo Twelve Free Improvisations in Twelve Keys (DIZ, 2009), an engaging, absorbing album rooted in some of his earliest musical explorations. “I began playing Bach as a kid and loving it — but I always wanted to make up my own music,” he recalls. “I was inspired by Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts — the sheer concentration needed to improvise, alone, on that level is such a compelling challenge. With Twelve Free Improvisations in Twelve Keys, I aimed to create just under an hour’s worth of music that was free but cohesive, improvisation as spontaneous composition. That album paved the way for the Goldberg Variations / Variations, just as the ‘Goldbergs’ gave me further foundation for my concerts of solo improvisation.” Considering the contemplative reveries of this pianist, DownBeat said: “Tepfer has the ability to disappear into the music even as he’s making it.”
Tepfer’s first two trio albums — Oxygen (DIZ, 2007) and Before the Storm (DIZ, 2005) — saw the pianist in league with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Richie Barshay, longtime confreres with close rapport. Allying high instrumental finish to tight arrangements, the albums ranged from Tepfer’s irresistible, ever-lyrical originals to ingenious versions of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” — and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” It was such music-making that led Time Out London to say: “Tepfer is among the most accomplished and imaginative of the new wave of players emerging across the pond. He specializes in a rippling style that builds complex melodic layers of ideas... A piano star.”
For his third trio album — Five Pedals Deep (Sunnyside, 2010) — Tepfer convened a new, galvanizing partnership with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Ted Poor. Whether on originals of great beauty by Tepfer (including some solo interludes) or covers of a Jacques Brel tune and “Body and Soul,” it was the sound of surprise that the pianist was after with this album. “I aimed to make a record almost without prior rehearsal, with spare arrangements,” he explains. “I was out to capture a fresh energy, a sense of discovery — of music being made in the moment. Five Pedals Deep is a much ‘grungier’ record than the first two trio albums, and that’s a sound I feel very close to. Charles Ives talked about the appeal of a little ‘mud’ in music — some out notes in there. And I’ve always thought that listening to jazz is like the perceiving of structure through a clouded glass — the challenge is the fun of it. Mystery and openness — that’s what most often excites me about art.”
According to The New York Times, Tepfer’s Five Pedals Deep “lays out something like a personal manifesto\'85 Mr. Tepfer unfurls his lyricism in great silvery arcs.” All Music Guide described the album as “inventive” and “intense,” while Stereophile simply judged it “beautiful.” All About Jazz singled out Tepfer’s tune “I Was Wonderin’ ” for its brand of playful sophistication, with “its hints of swing, rock, and even classical\'85 there simply to service the nuanced shading of the piece.” Reflecting on the album, Tepfer explains some more of his music-making philosophy: “When you listen to Thelonious Monk’s music, you can put it on for anybody, it doesn’t matter if they’re into jazz, and they love it. The reason for this is that his music has really strong melodies, there’s a real coherence to the sound, it grooves, and there’s a strong feeling of fun that comes through in the music. In many ways, I’m trying to do a contemporary version of that.”
Tepfer will have a new trio album out on Sunnyside in fall 2013. The pianist is also going into the studio to record a duo album with bass great Gary Peacock, and in a collaboration further afield, Tepfer is teaming with young singer Yanet Valdes for sessions in Cuba. Before that, there is a tour of North America and Europe with Ben Wendel on behalf of their Small Constructions album.
New York magazine has called Tepfer “one of the moment’s most adventurous and relevant musicians.” He was voted a Best New Artist in JazzTimes in 2010 and a Rising Star in DownBeat in 2011. Among his awards are the first prize and audience prize at the 2006 Montreux Jazz Festival Solo Piano Competition, first prize at the 2006 East Coast Jazz Festival Competition, and first prize at the 2007 competition of the American Pianists Association. He has been named a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. State Department, with travels to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Czech Republic. He has also lectured and led master classes from London to Warsaw to Seoul. Tepfer was commissioned by the Prague Castle Guard Orchestra to compose a concerto for symphonic wind band and improvising piano; the kaleidoscopic result, The View from Orohena, had its premiere at the Prague Castle in 2010.
Tepfer’s playing — whether performing with Lee Konitz at the Village Vanguard or leading his trio at the Jazz Standard, going solo with his complete Goldberg Variations / Variations at Greenwich House or playing in an all-star Bud Powell tribute at Birdland — is always a mix of the gorgeous and the vivacious, lyricism balanced with swing, freedom with cohesion. Considering precedent even as he looks ahead, Tepfer says: “The example of musicians like Lee Konitz and Paul Motian and Thelonious Monk is so important: They make music that never dates, because they’re artists who are always open and who strive for the essential, saying more with one note than another player with a hundred. There’s a purity in what they do that I admire — and that always inspires me to think about what I truly want to say in music. Because that’s what I’m after — what’s lasting, essential, true, beautiful.”