“Of course Bach is a million times greater than me,” the pianist Dan Tepfer mentioned not too long ago. “I can still have a conversation with him.”
That dialog is ongoing. While Tepfer, 39, is finest generally known as a jazz artist, who has labored with giants like the saxophonist Lee Konitz, he has additionally delved into Bach — with twists.
In “Goldberg Variations/Variations,” Tepfer carried out that monumental keyboard work, however as a substitute of repeating each variation, as Bach’s rating signifies, he improvised his own responses. Last yr, homebound and intrigued by the concept that Bach’s contrapuntal strains would work simply as effectively inverted, he recorded himself taking part in the “Goldbergs” on a Yamaha Disklavier, a grand piano with a high-tech player-piano perform. A pc program he devised — Tepfer additionally has an undergraduate diploma in astrophysics — then played back each variation, but flipped.
Last Friday at Bargemusic, the not too long ago reopened efficiency house docked close to the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo, Tepfer supplied his newest Bach undertaking: “Inventions/Reinventions.” Bach wrote 15 two-part innovations as instructing items for younger college students, initially compiling them for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. The items, written in simply two voices, one per hand, usually are not technically troublesome. But inside their limits Bach introduces starting gamers to some refined parts of music, together with daring harmonic modulations.
One facet of those works has lengthy raised a easy query. Since in his “Well-Tempered Clavier,” Bach wrote paired preludes and fugues in all 24 main and minor keys, why did he not discover all these keys within the two-part innovations? Tepfer ascribes to the reason that Bach wished to focus newcomers on solely the “easiest keys” — that’s, those with the fewest sharps or flats.
So in “Inventions/Reinventions,” Tepfer boldly — even audaciously — provides these “missing” 9 innovations within the type of his personal free improvisations.
“Improvisation is what is dearest to my heart,” he mentioned in an interview, “and has always felt so natural.”
When he was a scholar, Tepfer mentioned, he “spent vastly more time just improvising stuff at home,” even when academics advised him to not. He added that the way in which he thinks about jazz could effectively have been the way in which Bach would have considered improvising.
“And we know from the historical record that improvisation was essential to Bach,” Tepfer mentioned. “He clearly excelled at it to a unique degree.”
Of course, for Tepfer to provide his personal improvised variations of the lacking Bach innovations takes some bravado. “That tension is at the heart of any of these projects that I’ve done where I’ve kind of interacted with Bach and these totemic pieces,” he mentioned. “But the only way these projects can come alive is if is feels like a true conversation, and in any good conversation people speak in their own voice.”
That his improvisations are certainly free — created with “no preconceptions going in,” as he put it — got here via within the efficiency at Bargemusic, partly as a result of his “reinventions” sounded nothing like these captured on a video that was made the second time he tried this system out — in 2019 in Paris, the place he was born to American mother and father and studied at a division of the Paris Conservatory.
Following the sequence of items in Bach’s rating, Tepfer begins with Invention No. 1 in C, a chunk each elementary piano scholar learns, and goes proper into the Invention No. 2 in C minor — in all probability probably the most musically complicated of the 15, unfolding as an intricate canon and transferring via distant realms of concord. At Bargemusic, as in Paris, Tepfer performed with clear, articulate contact; a jazz musician’s really feel for lithe, bouncy rhythms; and tastefully expressive lyrical freedom.
Tepfer performs Bach:
Bach didn’t write innovations in C-sharp main or minor, so Telfer equipped them. In Paris, his free improvisation in C-sharp main opened with a quizzical motif — a fast word that leapt to a repeated tone and hesitated, till that motif was echoed up and down the keyboard, changing into a hook for expanded passages of intersecting voices, wistful melodic stretches and a few poignant episodes of darkish, chromatic chords.
The equal improvisation at Bargemusic was extra insistently rhythmic and spiky, pushed by an invention-like motif that popped up all over the place and led to lovely flights of concord and a few stressed, agitated episodes.
In Brooklyn, his improvisation in C-sharp minor was gently jazzy, with passages of jumpy riffs alternating with delicate filigree. In Paris, it was jazzy in a extra assertive, punchy means, with a clipped three-note riff that shot downward one second, then segued into fleeting passages that wished to show pensive however by no means gave in.
And improvises once more:
Some of the improvisations in Brooklyn had a looking, mellow high quality, as if Bill Evans have been assembly Debussy. Perhaps the event, a return to stay music in an intimate setting with simply 25 individuals in attendance, introduced out Tepfer’s ruminative aspect, because the efficiency continued and the improvisations turned impetuous, reflective, virtually Romantic.
“With the inventions, I’m not taking any material from Bach,” he mentioned; as a substitute, he tries to answer the “concept” of the piece.
“I try to come up with a musical idea,” he mentioned, “and it’s not something preplanned.”
That concept could possibly be a brief motif, like an intervallic determine. Then Tepfer desires to take this concept on a harmonic, fraught dramatic journey, earlier than lastly getting the concept — the hero — safely residence; he connects the innovations to historical Greek rhetoric and drama. “That’s the DNA of Bach’s inventions,” he mentioned. The high quality of a dramatic state of affairs got here via in all of Tepfer’s improvisations.
In one sense, this dialog with Bach was a little bit unbalanced: Bach’s innovations largely final a minute or two, whereas Tepfer’s improvisations are typically 5 minutes or longer. Both in Paris and Brooklyn, the entire program lasted about 75 minutes. I might think about one other method through which he tried, as a self-discipline, to constrict himself extra to Bach’s timeframe.
Yet it was exhausting to not be swept away by Tepfer’s imaginative and prescient and compelling realizations. With disarming seriousness and extraordinary musicianship, he’s honoring Bach by going all out in making a dialog with him that’s true to each artists.
“We know from the historical record that Bach was very kind and respectful to his students,” Tepfer mentioned. “So it’s perfectly OK to be fully yourself.”