Jazz pianist Dan Tepfer is known for forging deep musical relationships. The 2018 album Decade featured highly attuned duets between the 37-year-old and legendary 91-year-old alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, his collaborator for 10 years. Tepfer’s new album features a similar kind of intense communication — the only difference is that this time, his partner is an algorithm.
On Natural Machines, out May 17th on Sunnyside Records, Tepfer plays a Yamaha Disklavier — a state-of-the-art digital player piano — that he programs with various commands. Tepfer will play a note, chord or phrase, and the instrument will answer him according to a given algorithm. As he put it in a 2017 video for NPR Music’s Jazz Night in America, “I’m not writing a piece; I’m writing the way the piece works.” Though Tepfer prepared the algorithms in advance, the performances on the album are all single-take improvisations: the sound of him and the computer interacting in real time. There’s also a visual component to the project, which generates animated graphics that mirror the notes.
On the brief but fascinating piece “Intervals I / Industrial,” every time Tepfer plays a note, the Disklavier answers him with a 10-note run moving upward on the piano. He starts off playing one note at a time, but soon starts layering in others so that the responding patterns begin to overlap and interlock, creating an entrancing cascade of sound. The result is nothing like the pensive and searching music he makes with Konitz; here, the appeal is in Tepfer’s moment-to-moment delight as he figures out how to make his algorithm sing.
“You set up a rule for yourself,” Tepfer says in the NPR video, “and then it raises this really interesting question, which is, how I make this work? How do I make it work elegantly in music?” “Intervals I / Industrial” is just one of the many on-the-spot solutions he’s devised for Natural Machines.