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Algorithmic Art

My dirty little secret is that I can be a pretty serious nerd sometimes. While I was procrastinating from writing a piece for nonet a few months ago, I reopened a computer program I had started working on in 1998 (!) and modified it so that it would work on my current Mac. The idea is pretty basic: use lines and a little math to make pretty pictures. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it’s an example of what’s called algorithmic art. I remember being totally fascinated by this as a teenager: I would try things, almost at random, and these incredible shapes would appear. Fourteen years later, with a couple tweaks to the program, I still think there’s something really special about these images.






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Questions from the Atlas

I’m bringing my trio with Ted Poor and Ben Street to the Atlas in Washington DC tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 30th, 8pm). Brad Linde, who curates the jazz series at the Atlas and is also a saxophonist/bandleader of renown on the DC scene, asked me a few questions ahead of the gig. (Cross-posted from the Atlas Arts Blog).

Brad: How does your approach to improvising/accompanying/etc change based on the different contexts you encounter?

Dan: The essence of improvisation is context. That’s what’s special about it. Since it’s happening in real time, since we’re actually making music up on the spot, at its deepest level it should reflect everything about the current moment. I’m not only talking about the note choices that my bandmates make, and that I respond to; I’m also talking about subtle things like the sound of the room we’re playing in, what we’ve eaten that day, how we’ve slept, and what the weather is like outside. In improvisation, we have the opportunity to take all this into account at an intuitive level. It’s exactly like having a conversation with a group of people: depending on how noisy the room is, how well you know the people, the general vibe, you’ll participate in a unique way — if you’re really listening, that is (we all know people who seem oblivious to context, interrupting and forcing their point across). So I see the challenge of improvisation as listening to the current context in as sensitive and authentic a way as possible, and letting myself respond. The other side of this challenge is to be able to find yourself in that context: not to give in to it completely but to find the balance between it and who you are.

Brad: Your compositions are very lyrical, but they have a theoretical underpinning. What is your process behind composing?

Dan: It really depends. I’ve written tunes by coming up with a theoretical idea and more or less filling in the blanks; I’ve written tunes that came to me in a dream; I’ve written tunes that seemed like a joke at the time but that I came to like later. What’s interesting to me is that no matter what my approach is, they always seem to have a common vibe of some sort. I wrote a piano concerto in early 2010, and I didn’t feel like writing much else for the rest of the year. When I started writing tunes again, I was surprised by what came out — a lot of what I was writing didn’t seem to fit the mold of what I thought I should be writing. It took me a little while to realize that I had evolved as a composer, and that my previous ideas about what a tune should be didn’t apply anymore. The fact that one can surprise oneself as a composer is what’s fascinating to me: you are, in a way, divided in two when you write, and one part of you can sneak up on the other without it knowing it. Those kinds of moments remind me that our creativity essentially comes from the same place as our dreams — a place we just don’t control. Or, if we do control it, it goes stale, fast.

Brad: Can you describe your approach to reharmonizing or recreating harmony when improvising?

Dan: I think improvisation gets deep when, instead of being merely a rendition of a tune, it’s a commentary on it: instead of a reading of the text, it’s the artist telling you how he or she feels about the text. Then the music starts to get layered and multidimensional — there’s a frame and freedom inside the frame. Like hearing a story second hand from a particularly inventive storyteller. That informs my approach to reharmonization: I see the tune going from chord A to chord B, and I think, well, the composer liked to go from A to B this way, but how do I feel about that? Well, I like to go there this way! So in the end, there’s a distillation of the will of the composer, since I’m still following the broad strokes of his or her roadmap, and there’s also my own personal taste running havoc inside the map. My commentary on the original, in other words. Thinking about it this way, I think the harmonic possibilities are endless. I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years training my ear to hear new harmonies, and that really helps widen the field for me. There aren’t too many combinations of notes out there that don’t have a harmonic identity, however dense and impenetrable they may sound at first.

Brad: Your piano playing often breaks from the standard texture of “comping”. Can you talk about how you conceive of different textures when you are playing?

Dan: I remember being explained, in my teens, that Bach wrote music based on the popular dance forms of his time. Right away, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to write a series of extended pieces for piano based on the popular dance forms of my time? One for rap, another for drum n’ bass, another for rock, techno, funk, hip hop… I never got around to really carrying that out — although I still might someday — but in the mean time, I’ve used this idea in my playing a lot. One of the trio tunes on my latest record, Peal Repeal, is a transcription of a drum n’ bass groove for piano, with dark harmony. Another, All I Heard Was Nothing, is based on the texture of early Steve Reich-esque minimalist music. So I get a lot of mileage out of checking textures out that are outside of the jazz world and seeing if I can find a place for them in my music.

Brad: You’ve played in the DC area often in the past few years, most recently at the Kennedy Center with Allison Miller. Do you have any thoughts on the DC Jazz Scene? Is there something that attracts you to the District?

Dan: Well, I have some very good friends there, so I love visiting them, and there are also some great local musicians that I enjoy playing with. This may just be an outsider’s impression, but it feels like there’s a lot of jazz going on in DC these days, with new venues opening up right and left. It’s great to come play in a city where there’s excitement for what you’re doing.

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Konitz Playlist

A few months ago, JazzTimes asked me to choose ten tracks from Lee Konitz’ recorded work that stand out to me in his career. Here’s what I came up with.

Lee Konitz Playlist – Dan Tepfer

Lee Konitz started recording in 1945, and he’s still going strong today. He appears on hundreds of records, with an incredibly wide array of musical associates. Lee was unique from the get-go: his tone and phrasing are as instantly recognizable on his recordings from the forties as they are now. I’m fortunate that I’ve gotten to play regularly with Lee over the past four years; here are some tracks of his that have struck me along the way.

Subconscious-Lee (Prestige) 1949
A classic cut of Lee and Warne Marsh tearing up a lightning-fast written line in close harmony, something they did peerlessly. This is Lee’s first session as a leader; he’s barely 21, and he plays a super-tight, blistering solo.

Conception (Prestige) 1951
I like this track because it shows Lee completely at ease in the modernist classically-influenced style that was coming into vogue at the time, two years after the Birth of the Cool sessions. The composition is by George Russell, and the interplay between Lee and Miles Davis is mysterious and fascinating.

All of Me
Motion (Verve) 1961
When people talk about “the long Tristano line”, this is what they’re referring to. With Elvin Jones providing the rhythmic backbone, Lee spins out line after line, each longer and more intricate than the last. He sounds like he could go on forever. It’s some of the most expressive bebop playing I know, and a model of relaxation under pressure.

The Lee Konitz Duets (Milestone) 1967
Not everybody realizes that Lee, best known for playing consonant music, is a devoted free improviser, starting with the famous Lennie Tristano cut “Intuition”, from 1949. Here he is in a deeply contemplative mood, playing a spectral duet with Jim Hall.

Duet for Saxophone and Drums and Piano
European Episode (CAM) 1968
Some of the wildest playing from Lee that I’ve heard — totally dissonant and free, and he plays through an octave harmonizer for part of the take, no less! This is exciting stuff; it still sounds fresh forty years later. With Martial Solal and Daniel Humair.

The Song is You
Lone-Lee (SteepleChase) 1974
Which other saxophonist has an unaccompanied track of himself playing over a standard for 38 minutes? Lyrical, freewheeling, mischievous, operatic, irreverent, resolutely uncommercial, this bold stand sums up a lot about Lee, especially when you put it alongside his totally-inside, virtuosic recordings.

Just Friends
Star Eyes (HatOLOGY) 1983
This album holds special significance for me: it was my introduction to hearing Lee with a pianist in a duo setting. And Martial isn’t just any pianist: he’s as pianistic as a pianist can be — a constant stream of fireworks. Yet Lee isn’t thrown for a second; he plays with power and conviction. This track is a model, to me, of how two very different musicians can create something exciting out of the tension between them.

Three Guys
(Enja) 1999
A prime example of Lee delivering a ballad, one that happens to be outside of the American songbook tunes that he most often plays. Lee can take a melody and infuse it with profound humanity. He does that and more here, with Steve Swallow and Paul Motian.

Another Shade of Blue
Another Shade of Blue (Blue Note) 1999
I know a number of musicians of my generation who got into Lee’s music through this album. I’ve heard Lee say that he can’t stand blues licks; here’s a great example of how he plays the blues without employing any. It’s still very much the blues, though. With Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden.

Elande No. 1 (F#)
Duos with Lee (Sunnyside) 2009
With apologies for picking a track that I play on, I wanted to include this because it shows a side of Lee that you don’t hear very often: his ability to generate perfectly balanced melodies in a freely improvised, but tonal context. There was no planning at all for this cut aside from a loose tonal center, yet Lee weaves through my improvised harmonies with total fluidity and a lightning-quick ear for tension and release.

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All Kinds of Music-Making

The composer Anna Clyne and I got together yesterday evening to catch up, and since we were at my place, and there were microphones lying around, we decided to make a track. I met Anna at the University of Edinburgh when I was 19 or so, when she got me to sing on one of her first compositions, a knotty choral thing where the time signature changed every bar (and they were short bars, too). She’s now the composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony, and has been making some awesome music.

Here’s what we came up with — it ended up sounding like some kind of post-modern tribal thing, with Moby Dick and Beckett thrown in. We used whatever was close at hand.

It’s always so interesting to me to see what direction different collaborations lead you in. Gary Peacock asked me last year to make a duo record with him, and we’re going into the studio tomorrow. That music will be totally different from the above, for sure, and yet I like to think that there’s a common thread, that the difference just reflects the fact that my voice would have a slightly different tone in a conversation with Gary than it would in a conversation with Anna, and that we’d most likely be talking about different things in the first place. And even if we were to talk about exactly the same thing, the rhythm of the conversation, and the language used, would be different, simply because Gary and Anna are two different people and they each bring out different aspects of myself.

Selfishly speaking, I sometimes think of friends as variously tinted mirrors: they each reflect a unique image of myself. That’s why solitary confinement is the most extreme form of torture there is: without these external mirrors that are other people, a person loses all sense of self (Atul Gawande wrote about this at length in the New Yorker a couple years ago; it’s worth reading). We see ourselves through other people, and we can sometimes hear ourselves through our collaborators, too.

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Groucho Marx vs. Irving Berlin

Everyone needs to have a copy of The Groucho Letters. Groucho Marx, aside from being very funny, was a great letter writer: he corresponded with many of the memorable people of his day, including (incredibly) T.S. Eliot. This collection is on my shelf next to Mozart’s letters. And when I say shelf, I really mean bathroom.

My fave so far is Groucho’s exchange with Irving Berlin, in 1956:

Dear Irving:
I have taken to singing songs on my show; cute or funny ones, preferably. A few weeks ago I did “I Love a Piano” with Liberace, and last week I did “Cuba.”
I know that you have many songs of this type and if, one of these days, you could stray far enough from your money to peruse your catalogue, perhaps you could instruct one of your hirelings to send me a few of them. They don’t seem to be available in the music shops. I did get “I Want To Be Lazy” — but that’s about all I could find.

Dear Groucho:
Your letter was read to me over the telephone in Florida.
My office has chosen some songs and are sending them to you but I also instructed them to send you a catalogue so you can roll your own. If there’s anything you want that we haven’t got in stock, I will have it made up for you.
Outside of “The Cocoanuts,” I’m still grateful to you for doing “Simple Melody” with Bing Crosby which ended up in its revival.
I see your show often and you remind me very much of the fellow who came to Atlantic City and heard George Kaufman read the first draft of “The Cocoanuts.” I’m delighted with your success. 
As always,

Dear Irving:
First of all, thanks for the parcel of songs, plus the catalogue and your invitation to “roll my own.” Little did you know! While perusing it, I found some fifty-odd pieces (list attached) that I’d like to add to my repertoire.
Next time let me have your address so that my thanks can reach you directly, rather than be strained through a telephone wire from New York.
Warmest regards,

Dear Groucho:
Frankly, there are some songs I would be tempted to pay you not to do. For instance, “Cohen Owes Me $97” would not be taken in the same spirit it was when I wrote it for Belle Baker when she opened at the Palace many, many years ago. “The Friars Parade” is a bad special song I wrote for the Friars Club and you certainly would never have occasion to use that.
But why mention individual titles? Let me tell you of my favorite Groucho Marx story the way I tell it: “There’s a song I wrote during the First World War called ‘Stay Down Here Where You Belong’ of which Groucho knows all the lyrics. Any time he sees me, when I am trying to pose as a pretty good songwriter, he squares off and sings it. I’ve asked him how much money he will take not to do this but so far he will not be bribed.”

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It’s also about the notes

I dropped by 5th Estate in Brooklyn tonight to play some sax at the jam session, and had a conversation there that brought up a nice memory: it was shortly after I started playing with Lee Konitz, in early 2007. I had been introduced to him by the great French pianist Martial Solal, and started going over to his apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan to play. We hit it off right away. I knew Lee’s music from recordings and from hearing him live, but when I started playing with him, what struck me most was how much meaning Lee could put into a single note. You didn’t even realize that he was playing notes unless you consciously focused on that — what came across was pure expression. So after pondering this for a few days, I showed up at Lee’s apartment and after playing a tune with him, I said:

“Lee, I think I’ve figured something out from playing with you. It’s not about the notes you play, really, is it? It’s about the meaning that the notes have to you. It’s about how connected emotionally you are to them.”

To which Lee answered:

“Well, sure, but it’s also about the notes.”

I smile just thinking about this. It’s so perfect, because of course he’s right: it’s never about one thing. Everything matters. Great music — and great art in general — succeeds because all of the bases are covered at the highest level. Sure, Lee is a master of expression and sound, but he’s also a master of constructing perfectly structured melodic lines. He could put perfect notes one after another all day long. And if he hadn’t spent all those years studying how to do this — by transcribing Lester Young and Charlie Parker solos religiously, writing out his own lines, and generally immersing himself in the science of bebop as taught by Lennie Tristano —, his deep emotional connectedness would have nothing to rest on.

This reminds me of something else: while I was studying physics at the University of Edinburgh, I conducted a student production of Jan Carlo Menotti’s opera The Telephone in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (Fear not, I spent most of my time in Scotland playing jazz gigs). Somehow I learned that Menotti himself lived only about 40 miles from Edinburgh, and — long story short — he invited me to his castle (it really was a castle) for lunch. I showed up (I biked, actually) and the Duchess of Northumberland happened to be there for lunch as well. So it’s 20-year-old me, 92-year-old Menotti, and the 2nd richest woman in the UK. And at some point I start talking about Beethoven, whose symphonies I’d been listening to. And I say:

“Isn’t it incredible, about Beethoven? He believes so much in what he’s writing, he has so much conviction, that he can take the simplest idea [and here I probably hummed the da da da dumm of the 5th symphony] and make it sound like great music.”

To which Menotti replied (with Italian accent):

“Hmm, perhaps, but it takes a lot more than belief to do that.”

It’s the same exact lesson. It’s such a classic youngster thing to get all caught up in one limited aspect of creation and decide that it’s the key to everything else. The wise old masters know that without the cogs and gears and chains and oil, the machine doesn’t move no matter how much you’d like it to. You gotta get everything right for it to fly.

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Paul Motian, 1931 – 2011

I have a really clear memory of dropping in on a trio set with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian while passing through New York when I was 17 or so. It was Motian who struck me the most: on one tune — and I can see this clearly in my mind 12 years later — all he played was his ride cymbal. After the tune ended, a guy in front of me leaned in towards his date and said: “only Paul Motian could pull that off”, and that was really my first clear realization of that most mysterious element of music, the ability that great musicians have to infuse the tiniest thing — a single cymbal hit, for example — with layers of meaning. How is that even possible? It’s just a cymbal hit, after all. But Paul was staring so hard at the cymbal, and his concentration was clearly so intense, that somehow it didn’t sound like a cymbal but like some kind of personal expression, like a smile, a raised eyebrow or a laugh. Paul was one of the rare players who never sound like they’re playing notes — it goes straight past craft into expression, past “music” (in the non-transcendent sense) into “art”.

How Paul did that I have no idea, but he must be one of the all-time masters of that brand of magic. After I moved to New York, in 2006, he was probably the musician that I went to hear the most, and he never disappointed. Most of the time he played incredibly beautifully (always in his singular, faux-naïf way), then occasionally he seemed not to be enjoying the gig and it got really interesting: it looked and sounded to me like he would choose to express his frustration in music instead of keeping it inside, allowing himself at these times to play loudly and at first glance anti-musically. Except it was always musical: in fact I saw several examples of his approach turning a set that was sagging into something genuinely riveting, as it awakened everybody onstage and put them into some kind of heightened combat mode. Sometimes the other players refused to be awakened, but Paul charged on regardless. He always seemed to be asking: how can we make some compelling music out of this situation? There’s no doubt that he was acutely aware that the greatest sin in art is boredom. Vitality was always at the forefront, and surrender to blandness just wasn’t an option. He would go down swinging.

I always thought of Paul as a master of casting: his bands seemed, to me, to be put together the way a director chooses actors for a movie: the goal wasn’t just to get the best musicians, but to gather a complete array of characters that would contrast and bring unexpected things out of each other. Like a movie: if you have a hero, you need a villain; if you have a class nerd, you need a class clown. Once he put a band together for a week at the Vanguard that included a young musician who in the ears of some listeners wasn’t pulling his weight. Asked why he had hired him, Paul said: “he sounds so bad, he makes me sound great!” Not many people in jazz think along these lines — the drama that comes from the internal dynamic of the band, the interactions of its various characters. It reminds me of Miles telling Dave Liebman, as he asked why he was in the band, that the “audience liked to see him move his fingers fast”. Paul was always aiming for something that was greater than the sum of its parts.

I got to play with Paul on two occasions: a quartet week with Lee Konitz at Birdland in July 2009, and a duo night at Cornelia Street Cafe in February 2011. Paul even called me this summer to ask if I could do a trio week at the Vanguard, but it’s one of the tragedies of my musical life that this — my dream gig — isn’t going to happen now. I am deeply grateful, though, for the duo night at Cornelia St, easily one of the musical highlights of my life so far.

I approached the gig with no expectations, knowing that if Paul wasn’t digging the music, he wouldn’t pretend otherwise. We played a couple Monk tunes and a couple standards, but mostly we played free. Paul was clear that the music shouldn’t be recorded, and I complied. A few months later, though, a friend surprised me with a bootleg she had made from the audience. I’m very glad to have this now, because it’s a reminder that Paul — and this is something I’ll always be proud of — dug the music. He was generous, giving, incredibly attentive, committed to making music together. I was suddenly struck by the miraculous nature of Paul’s time. There’s no other way to describe it. It was perfect — accurate, constant, deeply grooving — and profoundly flexible at the same time. It was immediately something that you could trust, a bedrock. Somehow this fact — the exquisiteness of Paul’s sense of time — had slipped me by until then, perhaps because the duo format, with its inherent fragility, the tightrope walk of two instruments without a third as consensus-builder, leaves so much open space that you have to notice these things. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready to really appreciate it before.

A couple weeks after our duo gig, I went to hear Paul at the Vanguard. After the set, he said “hey, that was a fun gig! We should do it again sometime”, and I couldn’t believe my luck. That’s the thing with people who speak their mind: when they say something nice, you know it actually means something. I only wish we had had the time to actually do it again — like everyone else, I was shocked to see him go. He really seemed like he would go on forever.

From the week at Birdland with Lee, I remember being struck by Paul’s endings. It was like that Nietzsche quote: “Masters of the first rank are revealed by the fact that in great as well as small matters they know how to end perfectly, whether it is a matter of ending a melody or a thought”. His endings just happened, often unexpected and always just right.

One thing I noticed about Paul is that you could bring just about anyone to a gig of his, including self-proclaimed jazz haters, and they would love him. I experienced this 4 or 5 times. There was something obviously universal about him, like Monk, that people — almost everyone — couldn’t help responding to. The phrase “I don’t usually like drummers, but he’s amazing!” kept coming back. If you’re talking about pure music, he was it.

In the end, when I think of Paul, the first word that comes to me is ‘truth’. In his way of playing music, and generally in his way of being, with pretending not ever being an option, he exemplified truth. I think that’s why people couldn’t help loving him: truth cuts across all cultures and religions; we know it when we see it. To see such a consistent source of truth disappear from the world is hard to bear.

The second word that comes to me is “badass”. Damn that guy was cool!

Gary Peacock said a couple things about Paul when we were playing together this summer. “He just takes the sticks and plays” was the first thing, which is pretty fitting coming from the devoted Zen practitioner that Gary is: there just didn’t seem to be anything in the way between Paul and the music, or life for that matter. He exemplified the “eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired” ethos of Zen.

Then Gary told a story. Towards the end of a tour that he and Paul were doing with Bill Evans in the Trio 64 era, Paul went up to Bill one night and told him that he would be leaving the next day. Bill said: “but Paul, we still have three nights left in the tour!” Paul answered that he understood, but that he really had to go to New York to play with Paul Bley — that that was the music he felt he needed to play. And here’s the amazing thing: according to Gary, Paul was so honest and straightforward, that very soon Evans was coming around to his side. Only Paul could make an abrupt breakup come across as something other than a betrayal. It was just what he had to do, and that was that. It’s hard to fight the truth.

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