|Dan Tepfer. Photo Credit: Jeremy Sailing|
“Going out on a limb every night and making it new.” In this interview with Sebastian Scotney, conducted by email, pianist Dan Tepfer describes the background to his “Goldberg Variations/Variations” which he is performing at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 20th November, as part of the EFG London JAzz Festival:
LondonJazz News: Tell us more about yourself. You have quite an international background?
Dan Tepfer: My parents are quintessential expats — they grew up on the West Coast of the US, and in the late 70’s they decided they wanted to try something else. They got lucky and both found jobs in Paris, where they still live today. So I grew up in Paris going through the standard French school system, while speaking English at home and spending summers in the US with my grandparents. It was a truly bi-cultural way to grow up. Then I did my undergrad at the University of Edinburgh, so I got a little taste of the British Isles before moving to Boston and then New York, where I live now. There are drawbacks to growing up in so many different places — sometimes I feel a little like I don’t have a country of my own — but all told I think it’s been really enriching. It made me realize at a pretty early age that a lot of the institutions and cultural codes that we take for granted are just accidents of history and don’t have to be that way. It makes you more open-minded.
LJN: And where/when/how did the interest in music first emerge in your life?
DT: It’s hard for me to remember a time when music wasn’t at the forefront of my consciousness. I was always singing and dancing and banging on stuff, even as a toddler. My mom sang in the Paris Opera chorus, so I heard a lot of music before I was even born; my grandfather was also a jazz pianist on the West Coast. There was always music around and I have a clear memory of playing the piano for the first time when I was 3 or 4 and feeling like it was the most natural thing in the world.
LJN: Who are your piano Gods?
DT: Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Glenn Gould, Pierre Hantaï & Wanda Landovska (harpsichord Gods), Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Chick Corea, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and many others.
LJN: Lee Konitz has been important for you, right? Working with him must have been a dream come true?
DT: I did have some sort of dream about it. I was listening to his duo record with Martial Solal, Star Eyes, shortly after I moved to New York, and I was struck with a vision of playing with Lee — a strong feeling that it was something I wanted to do. I called him up through Martial, who was a mentor of mine in Paris, and we hit it off right away. I’ve been playing with him for close to 8 years now and it’s been an incredibly rewarding relationship for me. Every time Lee gets on stage, he creates magic, and yet he never hams it up or phones it in — he keeps it as honest as he possibly can. To be playing with him as much as I have, often in duo settings, really gives you a sense of what it means to be on stage and try to simply be yourself.
LJN: What would be other significant figures/influences in recent years?
DT: Tom McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Johannes Ockeghem, György Ligeti, Sheila Heti, Aphex Twin, Anne Carson…
LJN: Bach Goldbergs, not to mention Beethoven Diabellis..These are works that people know – you’re walking into some pretty big shoes here, and must be very strongly driven – even fearless – to make this work?
DT: My dad calls me an adrenaline junkie… I’m not so good at looking before I leap. So I didn’t think ahead too much while this project was developing. It was just something that I kept being drawn back to, over a number of years. I couldn’t let it go. I’m just grateful that it’s matured into something that a wide cross-section of my audience seems to find meaningful.
LJN: How have you structured the variations?
DT: I went through a number of formats as the project was developing, but in the end I realized that the simplest structure was the best: I play the Variations in the original sequence and follow each one with an improvised variation of my own. I wrote about it in an essay for UCLA’s Ethnomusicology Review earlier this year that goes further in depth.
LJN: Is there room for improvising or is it mostly written out? (How does all that work?)
DT: Improvisation — apart from Bach’s text, of course — is the main point of this project. I love the juxtaposition of one of the most perfect works of art against the imperfect art of improvisation, as well as the juxtaposition of the old against the new. My own variations, which take off from Bach’s, are always entirely improvised in the moment. Over time, I’ve developed specific ideas and feelings about each of Bach’s Variations, and some of those ideas — which often stem directly from Bach’s structure — can recur from night to night, but the way I express those ideas, the actual note choices, melodies and rhythms, changes completely every time. That’s what keeps the project fresh and fun for me — to be going out on a limb every night and making it new.
LINKS: Bookings / Wigmore Hall