”If I’m giving all of myself to the music, the audience has no choice but to respond”. A post-concert discussion with Dan Tepfer & Leon Parker

Chamber Jazz@ Transilvania University | 31 octombrie 2019

Adrian Lăcătuş: This is the fourth year of our Chamber Jazz concert series and, since there are a lot of students among us, we always end the evening with a discussion about formulas, ideas, music and answer a few questions.
This was a great improvisation. We had a lot of musicians playing free jazz with us before, but the variation and range of your music was really impressive. I noticed that you improvise not only with your music and with your background, or between the two of you, but with everything that you find around you. It was very interesting and ironic, since Dan Tepfer also played a wonderful version of the Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord. Tell us a little bit more about this conversation between the two of you – in this case it’s not just a metaphor – and when Leon walks to the piano and starts playing his own instrument, his own body – that doesn’t usually happen. Is this way of improvising and creating interplay something specific to the two of you or something that you also do with other musicians?

Leon Parker: Actually, this is something I’ve been doing my whole life and I used to do it in New York on stage, but it was more like an attempt, and then I moved to France, where I experimented more with my body and less with the drum set. When I came back to New York, four years ago, this was part of my instrument and Dan basically welcomed me to bring all of my expression to what we were doing. I was surprised to see how well what I do fits with a pianist, in general, because most classical-trained pianists tend to be rigid when they get into a jazz format and then they ask me to be more rigid. But Dan is one of the best listeners I’ve ever met, which is not just about our music capability or how well your ears are trained, but also about how open your heart is, about wanting to commune with another artist. So what he offered to me was this idea of „wherever you go, I want to go too” and I’m the same way. It’s a really nice way of relating to another artist and it requires a lot of trust and a lot of courage, because he doesn’t know where I’m going to take him and I have no idea where he is going to take me. We just go for it. That’s my take on it.

Dan Tepfer: Thank you, Leon. I’ve been fascinated with free improvisation for my whole life, because I grew up playing classical music at the Conservatory in Paris an my grandfather was a jazz pianist, so I was always aware that you could improvise, but I always thought that you had to improvise on a melody, a song or a structure. So, the idea of being able to make everything up was amazing. When I was a teenager, I used to do long free improvisations, but I didn’t really know enough about music to really be able to do that in a way that makes sense. People, over thousands of years, have come up with ways to make it make sense. It’s not easy. The best comparison that I could make is with literature. If you are a writer, to write a novel you need to have a really good sense of how storytelling works. Sometimes, when people talk about free improvisation, they expect very dissonant music that feels kind of disorganized, and I love some of that music, I’m a huge fan of Ornette Coleman, he’s a genius. But I also think that that was a period in history that had a reason for being, a political one in many ways. Especially for the Afro-American community, it was a way of saying that their creativity goes beyond just playing Broadway showtunes and that they can explore this whole range of music. It also goes along with atonality and classical music. But to me, in this point in history, what I’m really interested in is consonance as opposed to dissonance, to be in a place of harmony. There is so much dissonance in the world (especially for us Americans). But harmony isn’t just three notes that go together. When Leon and I play together, the harmony is not only in the way notes go together – – which is what we also have to engage with, especially when Leon’s singing – but the rhythmic harmony is also harmony. What’s amazing about Leon is that he is such a deep listener, and also his sense of time and music is so intricate that all that I try to do is listen hard and make sure we are always in harmony.

Adrian Lăcătuş: That was a great first round. I was going to comment that usually the pianist, and you especially, with all your theoretical background, play the more intellectual and the more abstract part in this kind of music, somehow mediated by the instrument, while the percussion and Leon with all his corporeal presence is more connected to the nature of things, to the organic part. But what you do together tends to erase that difference. I find it very interesting that one of your projects, Dan, is paradoxical named “Natural Machines” and this is something very unique – I don’t think that many musicians of classical training venture into this kind of thing. Maybe you could tell us more about that.

Dan Tepfer: “Natural Machines” is an album I put out this year and actually it’s on YouTube. I’m experimenting with new ways to put out music, because I think the age of the CD has passed. I’ve been programming since I was a kid and I’ve written computer programs that respond algorithmically, in real time, to what I improvise. That’s why the title “Natural Machines” makes sense, because is this intersection of natural elements, like a human being playing music, and mechanical processes, like a computer applying rules to respond to that music. I’ve also written programs that generate a visual representation of music while it is being improvised, also in real time. I really don’t think that what I am doing in this duo is more intellectual than what Leon is doing. I definitely didn’t perceive it that way. Rhythm, especially when it is done with so much precision as Leon does it, is also a very intellectual thing. What do you think about that, Leon?

Leon Parker: I think I can embody both and that’s why Dan loves playing with me. I don’t have any earth signs in my astrological chart, but I’m very grounded and I tend to use my brain to deconstruct and reconstruct and to try to create textures. That’s what is enjoyable for me. When I first started playing drums professionally, I was playing in a wedding band, a black wedding band playing at black weddings. When jazz was being played originally in New Orleans, it was a marching band, and the drum set was created so that one person could do the gig instead of four people playing different parts of percussion. It was for people to dance to, but now we devolved to the point where people just sit and listen, but they don’t move. Me, I love to groove; I’m always grooving and the jazz music I love is the one I can dance to. Thelonious Monk is my favorite, because you can always dance to what he’s doing. Sometimes when I’m playing with jazz musicians, I feel like they neglect that, or they don’t appreciate that I’m bringing the groove in the rhythm.  So sometimes that is lost. They intellectualize it, but they are not feeling it. Dan is the same as me, I feel like we are very much connected to the human element of music and there is a balance between us.

Spectator: Thank you for this performance, is was really amazing, I couldn’t stop smiling. I’ve seen the connection between you two and the way you were looking at each other in order to be on the same path. My question is what other external factors do you follow when you are improvising?

Dan Tepfer: A big one for this project is the sound, the sound has to do not only with the room or the amplification, but also with the audience. Every person is reflecting the sound and absorbing it in a special way. And that is an important part of it, especially in a more intimate venue like this one. We have to hear each other very well.

Leon Parker: When we first started this tour, we both had our eyes closed, trying to be intuitive, but now I’m looking to see if he is actually enjoying the moment, the vibe and the energy. It’s not always the same. It’s like making love – if you close your eyes, you’re not fully present. Sometimes I’m really just enjoying listening to him and it’s like a meal. Do I want to dive in there or just leave it, just appreciate its smell? If I can’t contribute, I will just leave it alone. For me, the external factor is him, not just what is coming out of him, but actually him. And if he is dancing while I’m trying to take a solo, it distracts me, but I’m glad that he’s enjoying what I’m doing. When I played with Dewey Redman in Europe, he played this crazy free stuff that I was afraid the Europeans won’t respond to. But he had everyone in the palm of his hands, wherever we went. What I learned from him is that if I’m giving all of myself to the music, the audience has no choice but to respond. But that’s my responsibility. The more you give, the more the audience is going to be with you. I think we have to communicate well so that you would want to be a witness, a participant in this event.

Spectator: What do you call that instrument?

Dan Tepfer: This one? It’s called a melodica. It’s fun. You get to sound like you are playing an accordion or something, without having to learn how to play the accordion.

Adrian Lăcătuş: There is a lot of play in your duo, and a lot of humor in your conversations. Is this something that was created in between the two of you or an element that’s always there in your music? Maybe not in the Goldberg Variations…

Dan Tepfer: I actually think that there’s a lot of humor in the Goldberg Variations and in Bach, in general. I don’t think there is any good art that doesn’t have some form of humor. Even the darkest one, if it doesn’t have a little bit of humor, it’s just dark, nobody cares. I’ve been playing with Lee Konitz for twelve years and everything he does has humor, even the very sad things. Whenever I lose my humor, he looks at me like „really, is it that sad?”. I think it was Miles Davis who said „man, that’s so sad, not even white people want to listen to that”. The beauty of something like blues is finding humor and joy in sorrow. You got to have humor. It’s a fundamental part of human experience.

Leon Parker: When I was young, I was afraid to let others see how much joy as was experiencing while paying, I thought I have to look like I’m serios about this. And then I moved to France and I wasn’t playing as much there. I got to experience what life is like when you don’t play. It’s pretty boring. But it’s like meditating, you just have to deal with the nothingness. When I came back to New York and started playing it was like I had been starving. I’m just happy to be playing, and happy to be with musicians that actually listen and value what I am bringing. I’m happy to be with people like Dan, who I can ”play” with.

Adrian Lăcătuş: Thank you so much for being with us tonight.

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