One of his generation’s extraordinary talents, Dan Tepfer has made a name for himself 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 with some of the leading lights in jazz; as a leader, he has crafted a discography already striking for its breadth and depth, ranging from probing solo improvisation and intimate duets to trio albums rich in their melodic allure. Tepfer’s acclaimed Sunnyside/Naïve album Goldberg Variations / Variations saw the pianist performing J.S. Bach’s masterpiece as well as improvising upon it to “build a bridge across centuries and genres” as the Wall Street Journal put it. New York magazine called the album “elegant, thoughtful and thrilling,” while DownBeat declared it “one of the more audacious, accomplished recordings of 2011.”
Tepfer’s newest release is Small Constructions — an album of duets with multi-reed player and Kneebody co-founder Ben Wendel, released on Sunnyside Records in March 2013. 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, extending from fresh versions of Monk tunes to pieces based on Handel and Messiaen motifs, from a standard given an artful makeover to originals that underscore the duo’s melodic flair.
Tepfer, whose mother was an opera singer and grandfather a jazz pianist, began classical piano studies at age 6 at the Paris Conservatoire-Paul Dukas. The young musician took a circuitous route to a jazz career, first earning a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. He played extensively 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 masters 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 Martial Solal, one of his mentors in France, to Lee Konitz. The veteran saxophone luminary and the young pianist hit it off at once, sparking a partnership that would yield duet performances on both sides of the Atlantic and the 2009 Sunnyside album Duos with Lee. Described as “a benchmark of human potential” by Jazz Inside, the Tepfer-Konitz album embodies the notion of jazz as an artistic exchange across the generations, comprising mostly freely improvised pieces.
The Village Voice described Tepfer’s Goldberg Variations / Variations 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 explorations. Considering the contemplative reveries of this pianist, DownBeat said: “Tepfer has the ability to disappear into the music even as he’s making it.”
Tepfer’s first two trio albums — Oxygen (DIZ, 2007) and Before the Storm (DIZ, 2005) — saw the pianist in league with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Richie Barshay, longtime confreres with close rapport. Allying high instrumental finish to tight arrangements, the albums ranged from Tepfer’s irresistible, ever-lyrical originals to ingenious 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.”
For his third trio album — Five Pedals Deep (Sunnyside, 2010) — Tepfer convened a new, galvanizing partnership with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Ted Poor. Whether on originals of great beauty by Tepfer (including some solo interludes) or covers of a Jacques Brel tune and “Body and Soul,” it was the sound of surprise that the pianist was after with this album. According to The New York Times, Tepfer’s Five Pedals Deep “lays out something like a personal manifesto\’85 Mr. Tepfer unfurls his lyricism in great silvery arcs.” All Music Guide described the album as “inventive” and “intense,” while Stereophile simply judged it “beautiful.” All About Jazz singled out Tepfer’s tune “I Was Wonderin’ ” for its brand of playful sophistication, with “its hints of swing, rock, and even classical\’85 there simply to service the nuanced shading of the piece.”
Tepfer’s playing — whether performing with Lee Konitz at the Village Vanguard or leading his trio at the Jazz Standard, going solo with his complete Goldberg Variations / Variations at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge or playing in an all-star Bud Powell tribute at Birdland — is always a mix of the gorgeous and the vivacious, lyricism balanced with swing, freedom with cohesion. The New York Times has called him “a pianist of exceptional poise who is drawn to the deeper currents of melody.”
All-around, Tepfer is “one of the moment’s most adventurous and relevant musicians,” according to New York magazine. He was voted a Best New Artist in JazzTimes in 2010 and a Rising Star in DownBeat in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Among his awards are 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 has been named a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. State Department, with travels to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Czech Republic. He has also lectured and led master classes from London to Warsaw to Seoul. Tepfer was commissioned by the Prague Castle Guard Orchestra to compose a concerto for symphonic wind band and improvising piano; the kaleidoscopic result, The View from Orohena, had its premiere at the Prague Castle in 2010.
Tepfer will have a new trio album out on Sunnyside in early 2014. The pianist is also going into the studio to record a duo album with bass great Gary Peacock, and in a collaboration further afield, Tepfer is teaming with young singer Yanet Valdes for sessions in Cuba with Bata drums.