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Inventions / Reinventions

Release date: 3.17.23

Label: StorySound Records

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March 17, 2023

Dan Tepfer Connects With Bach’s Improvisatory Spirit On Inventions / Reinventions, Out Today On StorySound Records 

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February 16, 2023

Dan Tepfer Unspools Bach’s “Invention in F minor BWV 780” Ahead of March 17th Release of Inventions / Reinventions

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January 18, 2023

300 Years On, Dan Tepfer Builds New Improvisations and Narratives Within Bach’s Inventions

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May 17, 2019

Dan Tepfer Conjures “Ingenious” (Rolling Stone) Algorithmic Improvisations on Natural Machines, Out Today

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Biography View

" As a pianist, Mr. Tepfer combines superb technique with a complex set of impulses: He's a deeply rational improviser drawn to the unknown.” — The New York Times

One of his generation’s extraordinary talents, Dan Tepfer has earned an international reputation 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 around the world with some of the leading lights in jazz and classical music; he has also crafted a discography striking for its breadth and depth, encompassing probing solo improvisation and intimate duets, as well as trio albums rich in their rhythmic verve, melodic allure and the leader’s keen-eared taste in songs no matter the genre. The New York Times has said about Tepfer: “He has a wide-open sensibility, as tuned into Bach and Björk as to Monk and Wayne Shorter.”

Tepfer earned global acclaim for his Sunnyside album Goldberg Variations / Variations of 2011, a disc that sees him performing J.S. Bach’s masterpiece as well as improvising upon it — to “elegant, thoughtful and thrilling” effect, said New York magazine. The pianist’s latest trio disc, Eleven Cages (Sunnyside, 2017), features him ranging alongside bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Nate Wood from hook-heavy originals to a Gershwin standard to a cover of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” that Popmatters called “delicious.” The UK’s Jazzwise described the album as “one of the very best essays in contemporary piano-trio jazz you’ll hear.” Decade (Verve, 2018) — Tepfer’s second duo release with nonagenarian saxophone icon Lee Konitz — was praised by DownBeat for “its air of life-affirming creativity, with virtually every gesture speaking to the present rather than the past.” Tepfer’s newest album, Natural Machines, stands as one of his most ingeniously forward-minded yet; available now as a video album on YouTube and as an audio-only CD/download/stream via Sunnyside in April 2019, this solo project five years in the making finds him exploring in real time — via the Yamaha Disklavier — the intersection between science and art, between coding and improvisation, between digital algorithms and the rhythms of the heart.

In recent years, Tepfer has collaborated in duo events not only with Konitz but with vocal sensation Cécile McLorin Salvant, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, multi-reed player Ben Wendel and drummer Leon Parker. That’s not to mention touring in the bands of such divergent artists as sax titan Pharoah Sanders and soprano star Renée Fleming, as well as performing his classical piano quintet Solar Spiral alongside the Avalon String Quartet and the Escher String Quartet. He has played Bach concertos in tandem with lauded classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and worked with avant-garde choreographer María Muñoz. Yet even with his collaborative spirit, Tepfer has often gone especially deep solo, whether it’s with his Goldberg Variations / Variations, his early Twelve Free Improvisations in Twelve Keys or the new Natural Machines. This latest album’s 11 tracks include ricocheting, uptempo episodes (“All the Things You Are / Canon at the Octave,” “Demonic March”), glowing aural sculptures (“Looper,” “Fractal Tree”) and affecting ballad-like pieces (“TriadSculpture,” “Tremolo”). Writing about the creation of Natural Machines, WBGO-FM’s Nate Chinen noted the pianist’s status as an ambitious thinker: “What’s striking about Tepfer’s algorithmic project isn’t just the whiz-bang factor, or the notion that computer coding could lead to such hyper-dynamic results. It reflects his larger preoccupation with restrictions and freedoms, the analytical and the willfully unruly.”

About his evolutionary process for Natural Machines, Tepfer explains: “The Disklavier is essentially a modern player-piano — an acoustic piano with digital capabilities — but it doesn’t only have to play something that has been pre-recorded. The way I’m using it is that anything I play on the piano immediately gets sent into my computer, where I’ve written programs that send commands back to the piano for it to play – which I then react to, for a kind of live feedback loop. So, I’m not writing a piece as much as I’m writing the way the piece works. But the music isn’t pre-planned, only the rules. The piano is creating the composition with me in real time, so there’s a melding of the human and the machine there that I find really fascinating.” For a five-minute mini-doc on NPR.org about his experience with the Disklavier — which has been viewed more than 1.5 million times via Facebook — Tepfer said: “I’ve been playing the piano for 29 years, but suddenly, this instrument that I know so well, inside and out, feels totally brand new. I’m creating music with this piano and these algorithms that, honestly, I couldn’t create in any other way. More to the point, it’s about creating an experience for me as performer that’s all about improvisation… That moment of pure discovery is so magical.”

The entrancing video album of Natural Machines presents Tepfer performing along with his own flowing computer visualizations of the music (created using data from his interaction with the Disklavier). “These visualizations are intended to reveal the underlying musical structure of each piece,” he says. “They’re generated in real-time as I play, with everything on the screen directly representing some aspect of the music: pitch, dynamics, rhythm, harmony. All the performances were filmed in a single take.” This sort of multifaceted project is why New York magazine dubbed Tepfer “one of the moment’s most adventurous and relevant musicians.” Reflecting on the impetus for Natural Machines, he says: “There’s a current of anti-intellectualism, anti-science — even anti-truth — running through the world today. Natural Machines kicks against that. Music should be able to make you think and feel at the same time. That said, I realize that whether it’s Bach or Coltrane, Ligeti or Steve Coleman, the method behind the music isn’t ultimately as important as the fact that it speaks to people on sensual and emotional levels. I hope this does.”

In the context of Natural Machines, it’s notable that Tepfer is someone who was bred to blend his right brain and left brain with rare parity. He took a circuitous route to his music career, first earning a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Scotland’s University of Edinburgh (with his thesis on “Numerical Simulations of Galactic Superwinds”). But his mother was an opera singer and grandfather a jazz pianist, so he was brought up with music. Tepfer began classical piano studies at age 6 at the Paris Conservatoire-Paul Dukas. He played 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 master’s degree in jazz piano performance 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 pianist Martial Solal, one of his mentors in France, to Konitz. The veteran alto luminary and the young pianist hit it off at once, sparking a partnership that would yield duet performances on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as Decade and its 2009 Sunnyside precursor, Duos with Lee, described as “a benchmark of human potential” by Jazz Inside.

“Working with Lee has been endlessly inspiring,” Tepfer says. “He not only generates these perfect melodies, he’s one of the most open-minded people I’ve ever known — and continues to be at 91. He hears music in the deepest way, with this mysterious, searching quality to his playing that he has always had. Lee 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.”

With Eleven Cages, Tepfer returned after a seven-year pause to the trio format, alongside Morgan and Wood. Tepfer, apropos the title, aimed to explore the concept of freedom within boundaries. In his liner essay, he says: “There’s something about cages that magnifies freedom… Constraints surround freedom and give it a frame, be they physical cages or a formal structure we choose to create within. They challenge us to ask: How free can I be inside this particular cage? How much wiggle room is there? At the end of the day, we are all encaged in some way — by the limits of our bodies, of our minds, of the political system we find ourselves in. The best we can do is find the wiggle room, and use it.” Relating this to the album’s two interpretive pieces, Tepfer writes: “In both ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ and ‘Single Ladies,’ relationships are cages, too. In the first, Porgy wants to settle down, but Bess needs to fly; in the second, a woman chides a man for not taking the chance to commit when he could have. Both songs portray love as something of a brutal business: You’re either in a cage or breaking out of it.” Regarding his originals, Tepfer says: “The common thread of my compositions here is the malleability of time, the possibility of stretching and fracturing it. The challenges these tunes present — the particular cages they put us in — focus our attention as players when we’re improvising over them, forcing us to fight for our freedom. There’s something about high-wire acts that engages both the mind and the heart.”

Hearts and minds were obviously both engaged by Eleven Cages, as the album generated reams of praise both Stateside and across the Atlantic. The New York City Jazz Record said: “Arresting and compelling, adventurous and unpredictable, Eleven Cages jumps right out of the gate with energy and focus.” Jazz Magazine in France described the album as “an entirely personal vision of the art of the trio,” while Jazz Thing in Germany called it “vital, enthralling, diverse, virtuosic and even humorous… Everything has its meaning and purpose.” And All About Jazz in Italy summed up the album’s virtues by hailing it as “among the most inventive and deeply considered works in recent memory,” adding: “Dan Tepfer’s imprint is fully personal.”

Prior to Eleven Cages, Tepfer’s trio records included the 2010 Sunnyside release Five Pedals Deep, which features the pianist working with the kindred-spirit Morgan and drummer Ted Poor. According to The New York Times review, Five Pedals Deep sees Tepfer “unfurl his lyricism in great silvery arcs.” All Music Guide described the album as “inventive” and “intense,” while Stereophile judged it simply “beautiful.” Whether on originals of great beauty by Tepfer (including some solo interludes) or arrangements of a Jacques Brel tune and “Body and Soul,” it was the sound of surprise that the pianist was after. “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 my 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.”

Tepfer’s first two trio albums — Oxygen (DIZ, 2007) and Before the Storm (DIZ, 2005) — presented the pianist in league with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Richie Barshay. Allying high instrumental finish to tight arrangements, the albums range from Tepfer’s lyrical originals to inventive 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.”

Along with Konitz — and Miguel Zenón, with whom he has a duo album due out in 2019 — Tepfer’s duo partners in the studio have included Kneebody co-founder Ben Wendel, with whom he released Small Constructions via Sunnyside in 2013. The New York Times called the album “a breakthrough for both musicians,” while the Los Angeles Times extolled its “restless invention.” 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, from fresh versions of Monk tunes to pieces based on Handel and Messiaen motifs, from a songbook standard given an artful makeover to originals that underscore the duo’s melodic flair. Tepfer says that he and Wendel tend to “finish each other’s sentences musically,” so they recorded the album over just 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, a melodica. “It was a DIY affair — we used our own recording gear, and we didn’t worry much about how it would fit into a specific genre,” Tepfer says. “The experience resulted in songs that express our mutual love of jazz, classical and pop.”

One of Tepfer’s longstanding solo features — requested by concert presenters around the world — is his Goldberg Variations / Variations, which sees the pianist “build a bridge across centuries and genres” as the Wall Street Journal put it. DownBeat declared the disc “one of the more audacious, accomplished recordings of 2011,” while the Village Voice described it 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 process wasn’t as different from jazz as it might seem, Tepfer explains: “That is really what we do in jazz, particularly when playing standards. 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 every show on tour — say, ‘All the Things You Are’ — and it will be 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 vital for 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 such contemplative reveries at the piano, DownBeat said: “Tepfer has the ability to disappear into the music even as he’s making it.”

Beyond jazz, Tepfer has composed for orchestras, chamber groups and solo performers. His piano quintet Solar Spiral was premiered in 2016 at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, with Tepfer performing alongside the Avalon String Quartet. Tepfer has received commissions from the Prague Castle Guard Orchestra for two works: the suite Algorithmic Transform (premiered at the Prague Castle in 2015) and a concerto for symphonic wind band and improvising piano, The View from Orohena (2010). In 2007, at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, Liz Bacher premiered Tepfer’s Solo Blues for Violin and Piano, the very rare piece that showcases a performer playing both instruments. In summer 2019, Tepfer will unveil his jazz-trio arrangement of Stravinsky’s Baroque-channeling Pulcinella. “I grew up surrounded by classical music, as well as jazz,” Tepfer says. “I suppose even in the womb I absorbed classical music as my mother sang in the Paris Opera Chorus. Then I studied classical piano, which has a discipline different from jazz. But the more I learn and understand about music, the more I realize that classical and jazz — not to mention other kinds of music — are all one thing, elementally. The culture surrounding various kinds of music is distinct, of course, but whether it’s sitting with a pen and paper or playing free improvisations with Leon Parker, the essence of the music is the same.”

Tepfer’s honors include winning 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 was voted a Best New Artist in JazzTimes (2010) and a Rising Star in DownBeat (2011). The pianist has been named a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. State Department, with travels to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Czech Republic. He has lectured and led master classes from London to Warsaw to Seoul, and his non-academic writing includes a review of Dr. Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics for The New York Times in 2016. Tepfer garnered the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2014; a MacDowell Fellowship, with a residency at the MacDowell Colony in 2016; and a three-year creative grant from the French Fondation BNP-Paribas in 2018.

Bradley Bambarger



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