Dan Tepfer Bio
“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 drive — “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.”
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.
With Eleven Cages, Tepfer returned after a seven-year pause to the trio format, alongside Morgan and Wood. 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 in a set that ranges from ravishing originals to arrangements of a Jacques Brel tune and “Body and Soul.” 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.”
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.
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.” 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 inspirations, from Bach to Keith Jarrett.
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, playing both instruments. In summer 2019, Tepfer will unveil his jazz-trio arrangement of Stravinsky’s Baroque-channeling Pulcinella.
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.