Ruben the Squirrel & the Boston Marathon bombing

Something extraordinary happened to me in the spring of 2013. I found a squirrel. Or rather, the squirrel found me. It’s not all that uncommon, it turns out, but it sure felt special at the time. 

It all started on April 16th. In the afternoon, I biked to pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s house, in Park Slope, to play some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for her. She generously shared her insights into the piece, and I came away feeling inspired. It was a gorgeous day. I took the most direct route home afterwards, through Prospect Park, on my bike. In the middle of the park, there’s a narrow, paved trail that cuts through the woods and connects the western and eastern sides. It rises from the Park Slope side, and then plunges steeply down to the Flatbush side. 

As I reached the top of the ridge, right before the descent, I spotted a small animal by the side of the trail. I was biking slowly, and the strange thing was that as I approached, the animal — a squirrel, I could see now — didn’t run away. It almost seemed to come towards me. I put my bike down. As I approached on foot, it looked up at me and took a shy step in my direction. I couldn’t believe it. I slowly put my hand down to touch it, and it didn’t budge, instead looking up at me with huge eyes, eyes that belonged to a very young squirrel. 

Not a baby, but an adolescent, perhaps. It wasn’t long before I picked him up. At that point, other passers-by were watching too. This little guy was disarmingly cute. He quickly found his way inside my loose-fitting sweater and wouldn’t come back out. It dawned on me that he might have been cold. I noticed after a few minutes that his muzzle was covered in something that looked like dried mud. Other than that, he seemed in good health. After a while, my friend Ruben called me on my cell phone. I told him what was going on and he asked “well, have you named him yet?” “No, I just found him five minutes ago!” I replied. “Well I think you should give him a nice Jewish name,” he said. Inspiration struck: “How about Ruben?” 

My newly-christened Ruben was becoming increasingly friendly, but I couldn’t keep him, obviously, and the sun was starting to get low. So I put him down. Only thing was, he wouldn’t leave. He came right back to my feet, put his paws on my shoes, and looked up imploringly. I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Clearly this was a young squirrel that had somehow lost its mother, and it had imprinted on me as a possible new protector. But I’m a touring musician! The last thing I can do is keep a squirrel. I called an animal rescue center in Brooklyn — it was right before 7pm. The guy on the other end said “put him back. He’s what we call a dumb baby: he hasn’t learned to be afraid of humans yet.” So I put him back again. But he kept coming back. 

The fact that he was utterly irresistible didn’t make this any easier. Other people came and went, giving their little pieces of advice: “if I were you I’d keep away from that animal — you never know what diseases it might be carrying”. A quick search on my phone gave the official word back: small rodents, in the United States, are not considered a rabies risk. One couple came by and the husband said he’d grown up on a farm and had had abandoned squirrel babies come up to him a number of times, but his dad usually forbade him to keep them. He had raised one or two, though, feeding them milk and — he said — cat food. The only essential thing, he said, was to keep the animal hydrated. Make sure it drinks, and it’ll live.

Again I tried to put Ruben back. This time, he climbed about 4 feet up the closest tree, but just as I thought our story might be ending, he turned around and ran right back to my feet. Again the imploring eyes; I picked him back up. I was alone and in a true quandary: I definitely, no way, could have a pet squirrel. I was a fiercely independent guy. I did manage to water my plants, and I did manage to keep the humidifier in my piano full most of the time, but other than that I had very few real responsibilities outside of my music. And I liked it that way. But this little guy just wouldn’t leave me alone, and the more time I spent with him — perhaps 45 minutes at this point —, the more I liked him. 

Just as I was standing there with Ruben in my arms, a woman about my age appeared. She was in running gear, staring up at a branch hanging in mid-air, suspended by some kind of string attached to a tree above. Some unknown sequence of events, perhaps involving a helium balloon, had led to this. I asked her if she knew anything about squirrels, which must have come across as an odd pick-up line, until she saw that I was actually holding a squirrel in my arms. No, she said. But her curiosity was piqued and she loved holding him. We started talking. After a while I asked her what she did for a job. “I’m an actress, she said, and I teach French”. “Ah, tu parles français?”, I asked. Her English had been totally unaccented till then.

She answered in perfect French, only one of perhaps five people I’ve met in my life who speaks unaccented English and French. It turned out that she had grown up in Paris, not too far from where I grew up, on the eastern side. Her dad was American, her mom French. And then there was this: we had both gone to the same high school, a big one on the eastern edge of Paris called Hélène Boucher, and — we disbelievingly realized — had actually overlapped there by one whole year. Her name was Justine.

This was just too much. Too many unlikely events for one day. It was dark by now. I needed to put Ruben back. So I climbed over the fence separating the trail from the woods, walked ten feet in, and put him down. I walked back to the trail. Ten seconds later he was at my feet again. “You’re going to have to take him home, you know”, said Justine. Let’s make sure he doesn’t want to stay here, I said. I climbed back over the fence, Justine handed Ruben to me, and I walked a good fifty feet into the woods. I walked back, fast, to the trail. But something made me want to make sure that he was going to be all right. If his mother had abandoned him, after all, if he had fallen out of his nest onto his nose (which would possibly explain the caked mud covering his muzzle), he might not make it alone. Justine and I waited for about a minute, and sure enough, there he was again. He had followed me back. 

“How about we have a drink while I decide what to do with this guy?” We walked to the east side of the park, to my neighborhood, Lefferts Gardens, and walked into Lincoln Park Tavern, with Ruben hidden under my sweater. As we sat down, I took him out and held him in my hands. He was incredibly docile. Truth is, he seemed exhausted. A waitress came over, saw the little animal and got the manager, who promptly shoed us out of the restaurant, explaining that the whole place could be shut down if a rodent were found inside. But she wouldn’t let us leave without having us take a picture of her with Ruben. Turns out she’d wanted to hold a squirrel in her hands since she was a little girl.

The only other option was my apartment. We stopped at the local bodega on the way and I bought an eye dropper and some cat food. At my place, I found a cardboard box full of packing paper and put him in there. Then I emptied the eye dropper, washed it out and filled it with water. Ruben was hesitant at first, but he drank, at least a little. He curled up into a ball and fell asleep. Over tea, Justine told me about her parents, both painters, now divorced with her dad in New York, her mom still in Paris, and she showed me their work online. Both heavyweights. Her younger brother, too, in art school in Chicago and doing some really compelling work. Some of his hand-drawn images looked algorithmic and reminded me of some of the math-based line-drawings I’d made with code.

Before long, it was time for Justine to leave. I walked her back through the park and brought Ruben with me. She said I had to keep him for at least one night. How many people get to say they brought a squirrel home? But I wanted to try putting him back one more time. I figured that if he scampered off, it meant that he knew he’d survive the night. Perhaps all he’d needed was a little warmth, and he was now okay. I walked Justine to the west side, and on my way back, tried to set Ruben free again, an act that felt like a well-rehearsed routine at this point. He wouldn’t have it. I brought him home again. 

I put him in the cardboard box, full of paper that he could burrow into, and put the box in the bathtub. Next to it, I put water, cat food, and peanuts. The next morning he seemed to be okay, although he hadn’t eaten any of the things I had left for him. I gave him more water from the eye dropper, then tried to feed him some cow milk I had in the refrigerator, but he was completely uninterested. I left him with some cut-up vegetables and went into Manhattan to take a lesson with Sophia Rosoff, my 92-year-old piano teacher. A couple of days prior, Lee Konitz, the great saxophonist I regularly played with, had expressed an interest in meeting her, and I had arranged a group lesson. It had been a long time since Lee, 85 years old, had been given advice by someone older than him, but he took it gracefully. It was fun. I balanced an egg on its end, something Sophia often had her students do to get them focused and, like the egg, balanced. 

On the way back I stopped at a pet store and bought Esbilac, special milk formula for puppies that the squirrel websites (of which there are many) had informed me would be good for Ruben, as well as a tiny milk bottle to feed him with, and a mix of nuts and other things especially made for small rodents. When I got back, Ruben drank the milk, which I had warmed-up first, like it was the best thing he’d ever come across. The contrast between his dislike for cow milk and his love for the Esbilac was dramatic. He knew what was good for him. 

In the following days, he kept drinking milk voraciously, and he also started eating the nut and dried fruit mix that I bought. Friends came by and invariably fell in love with him. Even my friend Mathilde, with her life-long phobia of animals brought on by a childhood dog attack, loved him from afar. She even began to carefully pet him after a while, a major breakthrough for her. Over the course of two days, the caked mud, or whatever it was, that had covered his muzzle when I found him, gradually came off. When I first found him, there had been so much that he couldn’t breathe through his nose and kept sneezing when he drank; then his nostrils cleared, and then big chunks of the gunk started coming off. I had tried cleaning it off myself before, but it was solidly attached, almost like a scab. Sometimes it’s best to let time do the work for you. 

On April 18th and 19th, I traveled to Boston with Ben Wendel for a duo gig. My friend Y-Lan, who I learned had loved squirrels since she was a child and had always longed to hold and play with one, came over regularly to feed him milk. She figured out that he liked licking the milk out of her hand even more than drinking it from the bottle. The feeling of his tongue against one’s skin was particularly lovely. 

As this little fairy tale was unfolding in my Brooklyn apartment, Boston was in a state of emergency — the marathon there had been attacked in the most vicious of ways, with two pressure cooker bombs right at the finish line, on Monday, the day before I found Ruben. Ben and I had considered cancelling our gig, but decided that playing music in the city, as well as we could, would be the most meaningful way for us to help. I tried to say a few words about that during the concert: in many ways, it wasn’t the casualties that were most appalling in the attack (three people died, a hundred were injured; small numbers compared to the number of people killed, for example, in car accidents every year) but rather the sheer evil of it: it was so hard to imagine why anyone would want to hurt people at something as peaceful as a foot race. It just seemed so gratuitous. And for it to follow, only a few months later and not so far away, the murders of twenty children by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including the six-year-old daughter of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Greene, whom I’d played with not so long before… It was horrifying. Even though it was only a few people who were committing these crimes, it tested your faith in humanity. 

While Ben and I were playing that night, at a venue I often played when I lived in Boston called the Lily Pad, gun shots were fired on the MIT campus, only a few blocks away. We learned about this right after the gig, virtually as the audience was applauding. A cop had been murdered, one of the two young brothers who were the suspects in the bombing had been shot, and the other, all of nineteen years old, was on the run. After the gig, we moved to an Irish pub next door; an amazingly good traditional Irish band was playing, and after a while a young woman got up on a table and danced, quite beautifully. The strange thing was witnessing this intersection of art and violence: we all knew what was going on outside — perhaps the closest thing I’ve experienced to a war zone in my absurdly sheltered life — yet here we were, making music, listening to music, dancing. It gave me a hint of an inkling of a glimpse of what it might have been like to be living in London during the Second World War: people going about their daily business, still making music and dancing, as bombs rained down at regular intervals from German warplanes overhead. Not to speak of the too-many warzones still active around the world today. I suddenly realized, in a visceral way that put any intellectual understanding to shame, how much we in the rich West take our safety for granted. We feel entitled to be able to live our lives without constant threats of violence, but we entirely forget how much of a historical anomaly our extended period of peace — 75 years without war in Western Europe — has been. Four years earlier, I had played a series of solo concerts through the Republic of Georgia, including a gig — to which we had to be escorted by armored UN convoy — in Abkhazia, the separatist region in the Northwest of the country. Five short months after I’d been there, the whole country was at war again, Russia sending troops in to fuel the separatist fumes. This peace we know isn’t normal, I realized; it’s a luxury. Above all, we’ve just been lucky.

Ben and I took a cab back to the house where we were staying; the city was eerily quiet. Sirens were blaring and we passed a gas station that had been entirely cordoned off with Do-Not-Cross police tape, on Memorial Drive. It turned out later that the police had surrounded an innocent man there.

Meanwhile, Ruben was safe and sound at home in Brooklyn, playing with friends and putting on weight. I stayed up late into the night checking the news; periodically, my friend Y-Lan, who had been watching over Ruben and is a fellow night-owl, would send me pictures and videos of him. I started to feel a new emotion: I realized that I cared about Ruben, I cared about his well-being in a way that went beyond the mere practicality of whether he would live or not, the mere sense of responsibility for another being: there was something fatherly at play, there was love. This took me completely by surprise. It felt like an important moment of self-discovery, one of those moments when we uncover something in ourselves that we didn’t know was there before. 

How often do those moments of introspection happen, nowadays? I’d recently returned from studying bata drums in Cuba, where internet access was scarce and my cell phone didn’t work. I remembered the static gradually leaving my mind as the time wore on. The endless noise surrounding us in our normal lives, I realized, the myriad voices competing for our attention, kept us from finding the quiet within that was so important to actual self-discovery, in Art or otherwise. As human beings, or as animals for that matter, it was only natural that we be addicted to newness: things that are new could be essential to our survival, so if a noise came up behind us, or a friend shared a piece of information, it made sense that we would have evolved to pay attention. But the internet uses our tendency to attribute value to mere newness to trick us into paying attention to things that have no value at all. And as a result, by the time an inner epiphany might start to suggest itself, we’re unable to notice, because our hunger for discovery, by that point, has been used up. 

Somehow the arrival of Ruben in my life was centering, making me focus on more important things like the value of life, instead of my Twitter feed. The next morning, Boston was on lockdown, all mass transit cancelled. Ben and I got lucky, though: a friend drove us in his car to Providence, and we took a bus from there to New Haven, where we were scheduled to play at the concert space Firehouse 12. Leaving Boston was very strange. The police had told everyone to stay indoors, away from the windows. I’d never seen a city so quiet during daytime in my entire life, and wouldn’t again until the Covid-19 epidemic eight years later. That evening, as we were playing in New Haven, the second suspect was apprehended, lying near death under a tarp in a small boat in someone’s back yard in Watertown. 

Over the following days, Ruben kept growing at a surprising rate. He loved being in his cardboard box, and spent an amazing amount of time sleeping. But when I woke him, he was playful as before, only with more and more energy. He started jumping, like squirrels do. I noticed how big his paws were. He could scamper up and down my whole body as if it were a tree, and as long as I had a T-shirt and jeans on, it didn’t hurt, his claws sharp and delicate at the same time, only digging in as much as they needed to support his light body.

He was mesmerized by music. I had friends come over a number of times to listen to musical works in progress, and as soon as the music started, he would almost freeze in place, fascinated. I grew up with chinchillas, and I remembered that they reacted to music in a similar way. He once hid inside my piano as I practiced.

About a week after I found him, Ruben started getting less interested in milk. He was getting weaned. He liked nuts more and more and I loved watching him snatch one from my fingers: as soon as he grabbed it, the nut would monopolize his entire attention, the rest of the world falling away.

He was becoming increasingly squirrelly, nervous and energetic. It didn’t bother me — in fact I enjoyed seeing him grow into an independently-minded adult, and he never put up a fight when I tried to pick him up — but it made my friend Y-Lan a little sad. I had a gig in Washington, DC on April 24th with Allison Miller and Shane Endsley, and she volunteered to take care of him again. He had really changed from a week before, when he was as docile as could be, happily sleeping on her shoulder, his head hidden in her long dark hair, the tip of his nose peeking out. Now he was in constant movement, hard to pin down. One day I was walking in the park and saw an adult squirrel jump gracefully from a tree to another, tail perfectly counterbalancing his body, and I remembered where Ruben was meant to be. Squirrels make notoriously poor pets: they need space and become increasingly high-strung as they get older. They’re known to bite, hard. Ruben only nipped our fingers in a friendly way, never coming close to drawing blood, but I started to think about reintroduction. 

According to my internet rodent sources, rescued squirrels do a great job of readapting to life in the wild (or in a park) if they’re released right as they’re reaching adulthood. This is the moment when a squirrel starts to curve its tail up above its body, in that classic squirrel pose, instead of letting it hang limply behind as they do when they’re young.

As April drew to a close, I was scheduled to leave for Japan for a tour with Lee Konitz, and I started to wonder what I should do with Ruben. Right at this moment he started picking his tail up, and although he behaved as fondly towards me as ever, never leaving my body voluntarily once I picked him up, he was increasingly skittish with everyone else. It was time. My only concern was that he would refuse to return, as he had done when I had first met him in the park. 

The day before I was scheduled to leave for Japan, I walked through Prospect Park with Ruben tucked into my loose cardigan and a handful of nuts in my pocket. He showed absolutely no interest in leaving. He seemed to prefer, of all available options — including total freedom, which he could have chosen at any time —, the comfort of my warm body. The thought of leaving him forcefully, of running away, broke my heart. I hedged my bets: I called two old friends who had been coincidentally harboring a very young squirrel of their own — I had learned this online — and we arranged to meet the following morning in Prospect Park at the very place where I had initially found Ruben. If he still refused to leave, they would take him home and care for him while I was away. And if all went well and he returned home willingly, the experience would be a welcome preview, for my friends, of what was to come for them.

So it’s the morning of my flight to Japan. It’s bright, warm and clear, and Ruben is hiding underneath my T-shirt. I’m repeatedly trying, through laughter brought on by the tickle of his paws against my skin, to get him out and onto my hand. After what seems like a while, as my friends stand patiently watching, I finally coax him into sitting, upright, in the palm of my hand, and bring him slowly up against the very tree that he had momentarily climbed two weeks earlier before he had run back to me. Something’s changed. He’s intrigued — the situation seems to resonate with him in a way that the previous day’s walk hadn’t. He sniffs at the bark of the tree, and then nibbles at it. He cautiously puts a front paw against the bark, then two, then a hind paw. It looks unmistakably like a moment of recognition. I slowly pull my hand away, and suddenly off he goes, straight up the vertical wall of his natural habitat, in what can only be described as a joyously wiry scamper. 

And then he stops, and I’m concerned that he’ll change his mind. But it’s only to look back at me, to say goodbye — or so, at least, it feels. He stops for a few moments, looks back, then moves a few more paces up before stopping to look again. It’s me he’s staring at, not the ground, nor my friends, nor the next tree over. He does this three more times before vanishing for good into the spring foliage. It’s a beautiful day, and Ruben, this spark of life small enough to hold in your hand, who may never know anything outside of my apartment and Prospect Park even as I fly off to Tokyo, is back home. 

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Lee Konitz, 1927 – 2020

Thanks to JazzTimes for inviting me to write this memoriam. It appeared in their March 2021 issue commemorating lives lost to the pandemic. The photographs are by Josh Goleman, originally taken for our 2018 duo album on Verve, “Decade”.

As someone who likes to think of himself as rational, I can’t bring myself to believe in fate, yet Lee and I seemed destined to meet. Although piano’s been my instrument since I was a child, I had a sax in my teens, and I sound strangely like Lee on home recordings from the time even though I’d hardly listened to him. After I moved to New York in 2006, I put on my mentor Martial Solal’s duo record with Lee one day, Star Eyes, and, moved by a conviction I’ve seldom had before or since — that if I got to play with Lee, I would know what to do — I asked Martial if he would introduce us. Martial gave me his blessing, I went to Lee’s apartment on the Upper West Side, we hit it off immediately on both a personal and musical level, and thus began fourteen years of close friendship and collaboration.

Lee certainly changed my life, but he touched countless others as well during his 92 years on this planet. He influenced the direction of jazz, establishing early on an alternative to Charlie Parker’s brilliant path, even though Lee would be the first to mention that Parker was one of his greatest influences, along with Lester Young and his mentor Lennie Tristano. He studied and learned Parker’s solos, but, when asked how we was able to avoid imitating him and be so singularly himself, even as a 20-year-old in Claude Thornhill’s band, he would jokingly explain that he did in fact try to sound like Bird, but it was too hard.

There may be some truth to this, to the extent that Lee’s shy and sensitive personality was somewhat at odds with the exuberant fire of early bebop. But it obscures a deeper difference of philosophy, which is that Lee, for reasons that remained opaque even to him beyond a deep-seated natural inclination, valued spontaneity at all costs. It’s easy to underestimate how radical his position on this point was: to him, nothing was more important than finding the truth of the moment, and this meant that you couldn’t rely on pre-prepared licks or arrangements. As he travelled the world playing with long-term collaborators or pickup bands (he never hustled for gigs, so he accepted most that came his way), he liked to start from the quasi-blank slate that overplayed standards offered, so that he could jump straight into open-ended exploration. In the 144 or so public concerts I played with Lee all around the world, I must have played All The Things You Are at least that many times with him, but he never played it once the same, and he brought that same spirit of discovery to the free improvisations we recorded on our duo albums. He spoke in straight-forward, unpretentious terms even about profound matters, but he was well-read, and would sometimes quote Heraclitus: “Everything flows… When I step into the river the second time, neither I nor the river are the same.”

Lee’s devotion to personal truth was matched by a tremendous courage. He was unafraid of looking silly, and didn’t hide his vulnerability. Once, with the Thornhill band, he stood up to play a 32-bar solo, and, following his motto “listen is an anagram of silent”, he began by listening intently to the rhythm section to find the right moment to enter. But the rhythm section sounded so good that he didn’t feel the need to contribute anything, and at the end of his 32-bars, he simply sat down again, not having played a note.

Lee’s love of spontaneity manifested in his fondness for animals and little children, who always speak their truth. He would unabashedly greet both on the street, occasionally to the consternation of their minders. But he took music extraordinarily seriously and recognized that it was not enough to be spontaneous; one also had to learn to express oneself with clarity and meaning. “To really improvise, one must be prepared to be unprepared”, he would say. “And that takes a lot of preparation!” His life centered around the search for meaning, and he tried to only make a sound when he had something meaningful to express. In turn, he was an extraordinary listener, constantly searching for meaning in everything he heard from others. Asked if he believed in heaven, Lee said: “Heaven is here, there, anywhere that we can communicate”.

Lee received recognition throughout his career — he was named an NEA Jazz Master in the U.S., a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in France and had a street named after him in Italy — but he maintained a disarming humility to the end, never resting on his laurels. He appeared on over three hundred recordings and was loved and respected around the world, but there was never a feeling that he was “great” or that his next gig would be a knockout. Every moment had to be earned and fought for in the present, and failure was always on the table. Till the very end, he simply wanted to make music, and do so as truthfully as he could.

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A Few Things I’ve Learned About Livestreaming

“Thanks” to the pandemic, I’ve spent much more time figuring out how to deal with video and live streaming than I ever thought I would. It’s turned out to be a surprisingly rewarding experience. In no particular order, here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

29.97 vs 30

For historical reasons (i.e. for reasons that probably could have been better dealt with at the time but were instead swept under the rug, having to do with the switch from B&W TV to color), for these purely historical reasons, in the parts of the world that use the NTSC standard, including North America, footage is recorded and played back (on TV at least) not at 30 frames per second (fps) but at an incredibly arcane 29.97 fps. This would be okay if that were always the case.

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TriadSculpture for sale

At long last, I’m now offering my triad sculptures — the ones that I created while developing my Natural Machines project — for sale.

Here’s the Major Triad (ratios 4:5:6) in natural sandstone:

And here’s the Minor Triad, ratios 10:12:15 in the same material:

They will be 3-D printed on demand for you and can be ordered at my shop, right here.

Augmented and Diminished triads are coming soon! Here’s a sneak peek at the augmented…

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Negative Harmony: a primer

Ever since Five Pedals Deep, my trio record with Thomas Morgan and Ted Poor, came out in 2010, I’ve gotten a steady trickle of emails asking about a particular tune on it called Back Attya.

If you listen to it without knowing what it is, there’s something about the harmonic movement that might feel surprising. You can feel intuitively that it has a really solid structure, but at the same time, the chords don’t seem to move in a way that you would expect. There’s a reason for that: Back Attya, as the name cryptically suggests (ATTYA being an acronym), is an inversion of All The Things You Are, by Jerome Kern. Continue reading

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McCoy Tyner: dance, drums, beauty salons & fourths

The great McCoy Tyner, giant of jazz, huge influence on me and countless others, died a week ago, on March 6th 2020. Back in 2008, when I was 26, I had the privilege of interviewing him for French magazine Jazzman ahead of the release of his album Guitars. Now seems like an apt time to share the interview below, which — aside from the translated and much condensed version that appeared in the magazine at the time — has never been published. Thanks to then editor-in-chief Alex Dutilh for trusting my young self with this assignment and giving me the opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.

Dan Tepfer: Hi, McCoy. I should start by telling you that I’m a pianist. I’ve been playing with Lee Konitz for a few years now. It’s been very special for me to find myself on the bandstand with someone I’ve listened to since I was a teenager. Likewise, it’s very special for me to get to talk to you now, because I’ve been listening to you since I was a kid.

McCoy Tyner: Yeah, well, it’s the same for me. I’m happy to meet you young guys on the scene, and when they say ‘well look, I’ve been listening to you for a long time’, I never think about how old I am, but I think ‘wow, that’s good that I helped somebody’ or ‘my presence has a meaning’, you know. That kind of thing makes me feel good — I have a purpose in life. 

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Creativity and Its Sources / Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

Reading Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, which I love, I’m reminded of a realization I had a while ago: pure creativity is closely related to dreams — a mysterious place where new visions are somehow born. You dream, and you see something, and metaphorically speaking — because “dreams” can be taken to represent any information that comes from the unconscious mind — your conscious job as an artist is to reproduce this vision in real life as faithfully as possible.

These “dreams” could take the shape of memories (as they do in the novel) or ideas which suddenly (and perhaps inexplicably) seem important. While reading John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven earlier this year, I was struck by the fact that the Mormon fundamentalists he writes about seemed to be receiving messages and visions from a source remarkably similar to my own as an artist: they would close their eyes and listen inside. The only major difference is that they attributed this new information to a source outside of themselves: God. To me, because I am merely making art, the source of the message is secondary: what matters is that it’s personal, and that I like it. To them, the identity of the source is paramount: if it’s from God, a murder can be justified; if it’s from the realm of dreams, they are merely delusional killers.

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Sister Canons in the Goldberg Variations

In Bach’s Goldberg Variations, every third variation is a canon at an increasing interval. The first (Variation 3) is at the unison (the canonic voice repeats the leading voice verbatim), the second (Variation 6) is at the second (the response repeats the subject a diatonic second away), and so on until Variation 27, which is a canon at the ninth. (Variation 30, the last of the set, where you would expect a canon at the tenth, is instead a Quodlibet).

But this leaves a question: what direction does the interval in each of the canons go? If Bach writes a “Canon at the Second,” there’s some crucial information missing, isn’t there? Is it a second above? Or below?

One might expect that Bach settled on one direction, and that all of his canons are at increasing intervals above, or below. This isn’t the case. The direction of the canons, in fact, keeps changing, and seems to be an important structural component of the Goldbergs. This is something I’ve been fascinated by for a while, and I haven’t seen it discussed anywhere else before. Let’s take a look: Continue reading

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The question, when performing

The question, when performing, is:

“Am I putting up with anything right now? Is there something that I’m unhappy with that I haven’t addressed?”

For example, awkward posture, which looks uncomfortable, will make the audience uncomfortable too, because it shows the performer to be someone who is putting up with something rather than doing something about it. We want to see someone who is at peace, from head to toe.

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A Container for Nothingness

Two of my favorite jokes rarely get any laughs. I learned them both as a kid growing up in France. The first goes:

Why do Belgians sleep with two water glasses by their bed, one full and one empty?

One is in case they wake up in the middle of the night feeling thirsty. The other is in case they wake up in the middle of the night not feeling thirsty.

Of the two, this is the one that usually gets at least a chuckle. The second is dirtier, but is almost guaranteed to get no laughs at all: Continue reading

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Natural Machines


The Natural Machines album is out today, Saturday October 27th. I’m bringing the project to Le Poisson Rouge in New York on October 30th. The fine folks there asked me some smart questions ahead of the gig. Thanks to John Ruscher for asking me to do this interview. Continue reading

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Short songs with absurdly long codas

Form-wise, the Beatles’ Hey Jude is unusual. For 3 minutes and 8 seconds, it’s a conventional song, with melody, varying harmony, A and B sections that repeat in a predictable pattern — what you’d expect from a pop song. Then, for the remaining 3 minutes and 57 seconds, it’s something else entirely, a long vamp where the same static chord sequence repeats over and over again while the melody repeats with small variations and interjections. The proportion of these two parts feels like a bold move — there’s something about the length of the coda in relation to the body of the song that makes you question whether you just listened to a song or to… something else. Are we being tested? Are the Beatles daring us to walk away? If “art is what you can get away with” (Andy Warhol), are the Beatles pushing the limits? Continue reading

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The TRAPPIST-1 System: Listening to Planetary Orbits

(Cross-posted from Thanks to Nate Chinen for inviting me to write this.)

With most things, I’ve found, what’s most interesting isn’t the thing in itself, but rather how it relates to other things. In other words, everything is relative, which is why I was so excited to see the video below. It shows, using harmony, rhythm and visuals, the relationships between the orbits of the seven planets around TRAPPIST-1, a dwarf star about 40 light years away from us.

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Interview: Improvisation, Mountain Climbing & the Meaning of Life

I’ve got a little time off from touring so I’m cleaning house. While sorting through old papers I came across the interview below. Most of these answers still ring true to me today. It’s fun to hear from past iterations of oneself, sometimes.

Dan Tepfer interviewed by Gary Heimbauer
Jazz Inside Magazine, January 2010

Jazz Inside: Can you talk about how your unique childhood/young adulthood might have influenced your voice as a musician? You were born in Paris, France to American parents, got a degree in astrophysics in Edinburgh, Scotland and then moved here.

Dan Tepfer: I grew up in a way that doesn’t really give me any choice but to see the outside view, to see music as a pluralist art form. My grandfather was a jazz pianist on the West Coast. As a matter of fact, Nancy King, Ralph Towner and Glen Moore credit him with getting them into jazz. My mom is an opera singer. So I grew up hearing a lot of music, mainly jazz and classical, from before I was even born. I studied classical piano at one of the Paris conservatories through my childhood and teens, but somehow I always mainly considered myself an improviser. Continue reading

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Birdman! Absurdity, theater, music & the importance of madness

birdman-1000I left the movie theater last night, post-Birdman, intensely moved. Rarely has a film gotten to me so directly. Birdman is a wacky movie that seems to be asking a serious question: why live? What keeps us trucking on and floundering and trying as hard as we can to accomplish things, when we’re only specks of dust on a small rock orbiting around an average star, one of billions in a galaxy that itself is one of billions in the universe? How can you explain that we care so deeply about our shit? Our little troubles and tribulations? The movie has a simple answer: madness. That’s what explains it. And the beauty of it all is that madness is at once a curse and a necessity, without which, well, we might as well throw in the towel. Continue reading

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Doing It Bachwards: my unexpected Goldberg Variations

(Cross-posted from UCLA’s Ethnomusicological Review. Thanks to AJ Kluth for inviting me to write this piece for the journal.)

As I look back over the last ten years and the peculiar journey with J.S. Bach that the time represents for me, it’s sometimes hard to believe that I’m here, now, playing the Goldberg Variations from memory in their entirety, for sometimes sizeable audiences, well enough apparently to get enthusiastic approval from the classical section of the New York Times. I’m really a jazz pianist, after all, and the Goldbergs are hard. And the crazy thing is that I never set out to do this in the first place. How did I get here? The best answer I can give, to echo an experience many musicians have reported through the years, is that Bach taught me. Continue reading

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Lee Konitz on Spontaneity, Originality, Drugs & Playing Sharp

Lee and Dan

Lee Konitz will be turning 87 in October, and his long and distinguished career as one of the most singular saxophonists in jazz needs no introduction (but if you need one, it’s here). He is known in particular for his intense focus on improvisational integrity, a desire for each musical choice to reflect the present moment as much as possible instead of a pre-made plan or habit.

It’s easy to overlook how radical this position is. In many other styles of music, from classical to pop, the goal in live performance is the opposite: to reproduce a carefully thought-out plan as faithfully as possible. Even in jazz, it’s not uncommon for groups to take a hybrid approach where a good portion of the material, even outside of written sections, is predetermined. Despite all this, Lee has somehow stubbornly insisted on showing up to his concerts prepared to be unprepared, and has (mostly) delighted audiences in doing so. Continue reading

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The New Logic, Objectification, & Bob Dylan

When I got back home to Brooklyn from tour a couple days ago, one of the things I did was buy Logic Pro X, a big update to a music production app I’ve used for a long time. To get a handle on it, I decided to make a track for a friend of mine. Earlier in the day I’d come across Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do again, which, I was reminded, has got to be one of the most wonderfully simple and profound songs there is, and I thought it would do just fine.

I started hunting around the program for sounds. One of the big additions to Logic is that it now comes with a huge sample library. I focused on the orchestral samples, because I’ve never seriously tried to make a computer sound like a real orchestra before. The music I’ve made so far with sequencers, like my recent score for the film Movement & Location, is what we’d call electronic music: it purposely sounds machine-generated. There are people out there, particularly film composers, who are great at drawing acoustic-sounding music out of a computer, but it’s not a skill I’ve worked on before.

Logic now also has an advanced arpeggiator, which is something that was (amazingly) lacking in the old version — there were workarounds, but they weren’t pretty. In this context, arpeggiation means making melodies out of the notes in a chord by playing them sequentially instead of playing them all at once. Combine arpeggiation and some string samples, hold down a chord, and you might get something like this:


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Rhythm / Pitch Duality: hear rhythm become pitch before your ears

I just got home from a five-week tour in Europe and finally have some time to do what I call research. The way I see it, being a touring musician is a bit like being a scientist: you spend a bunch of time in the lab, and you find something that you’re excited about; then you have to go out and give a bunch of seminars to tell the world about it. But very soon you’re itching to get back to the lab, because you want to discover the next thing. So here I am, at home and doing research, which for me, right now, in between practicing piano and writing tunes, means getting into a computer music programming environment called SuperCollider.

Yesterday I was fooling around with it and suddenly realized that with SuperCollider, I could do something I’d been wanting to do for years, which is to make a recording of rhythm becoming pitch, and back again. You see, rhythm and pitch are exactly the same thing, only at very different speeds. How’s that, you ask? Well, let’s start with the harmonic series:


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Long Island

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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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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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.

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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.
Groucho Continue reading

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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.” Continue reading

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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”. Continue reading

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