Pianist Dan Tepfer blends classical music with jazz improvisation

Written By By Kyle Macmillan For Sun-Times Media Posted: 08/27/2014, 05:02pm

Sure, Dan Tepfer can lay down a captivating take on a standard and swing with the best of them. In fact, the respected jazz pianist does so regularly at the Village Vanguard and elsewhere with his frequent duet partner, the esteemed 87-year-old saxophonist, Lee Konitz, performing classics like “Body and Soul” and “All the Things You Are.”

But what really stirs the artist’s enthusiasm is breaking the rules, jumping musical boundaries and investigating anything new. He especially likes to find inventive ways to juxtapose and blend classical music and jazz, drawing on his strong background in both.

Tepfer has gained international attention for doing just that in “Goldberg Variations/Variations,” which he recorded in 2011 and performs at 4 p.m. Saturday in his debut at the Ravinia Festival.

In his distinctive version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous 18th-century baroque work, which consists of an aria and 30 variations, the pianist performs each of the sections as written and then follows it with an improvisation inspired by the preceding variation.

“One of the things that I learned about myself over the years is that I’m easily bored,” he said, “and if I let myself get bored, I’m not going to give my best. Everything I do, there needs to be a challenge in it. So, the ‘Goldberg Variations’ thing is very much that for me. When I first started doing that, it seemed completely impossible to me, and I’m still kind of amazed that I’m performing that music now.”

Born in France in 1982 to American parents, Tepfer began classical piano studies at age 6 at the Paris Conservatoire — Paul Dukas, but he was also surrounded by jazz. His grandfather was a jazz pianist, and he played jazz standards at home with his mother, who was an opera singer.

After a brief detour to earn a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, he completed his master’s degree at the New England Conservatory in 2005. He moved to New York and quickly became in demand, performing with such jazz innovators as Billy Hart, Steve Lacy and Joe Lovano. Five years later, he was voted a best new artist in JazzTimes, and was named a rising star in DownBeat magazine in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Since his teenage years, Tepfer has had an obsessive need to investigate as many different kinds of music as possible, and there have been times in his career when he struggled with being pigeonholed as a jazz pianist. But he has come to terms with that appellation now.

“A few years ago, I had this revelation that it’s OK for jazz to be where you start from,” he said. “You have to have a home. I’m definitely into a lot of different things, and I want all that to come together in whatever music I make, but I think I’m comfortable with that (label).”

But to be sure, jazz is a starting place for Tepfer and not always the ending place, at least not in any conventional sense. The pianist and composer delved for the first time into electronic music in his score for the indie movie, “Movement and Location,” which is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and he experimented with re-recorded, multi-track effects in his most recent recording, “Small Constructions,” with reed player Ben Wendel.

But nothing has brought Tepfer’s more success than “Goldberg Variations/Variations.” The project began when he happened to insert fragments of a few of Bach’s variations into some of his free improvisation and then he found himself returning again and again to the work.

“Now, that it’s out and I’ve been touring it for 2½ years, it has been a boon to my career,” he said. “People really respond to that challenge, people respond to somebody doing something that is obviously kind of hard. There is definitely an element of tightrope walking when you do it.”

For one of his next recordings, Tepfer is contemplating a return to a jazz trio format, but one with an innovative twist, of course. “For me,” he said, “the new challenge is to come up with new challenges.”

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