Tepfer Jazzes Up Bach

United StatesUnited States Bach/Tepfer: Dan Tepfer (piano), presented by San Francsico Performances, SFJAZZ Center, Miner Auditorium, San Francisco. 11.8.2014 (HS)

Bach/Tepfer: Goldberg Variations/Variations

Bach’s Goldberg Variations is such sublime music, so perfectly wrought, that it seems audacious for any performer to aspire to do anything other than plumb its extraordinary depths. Composer and pianist Dan Tepfer, who straddles the worlds of classical music and jazz, was inspired by Bach’s own fame for improvising fugues on the spot to take it a step further. In live performance, he adds his own jazz-based improvisations to Bach’s familiar aria and 30 variations.

In a solo recital presented by San Francisco Performances Saturday at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium, Tepfer created many dazzling moments, finding something new to express in much of the master’s music and in jazz glosses upon it. Not everything worked perfectly, which, come to think of it, is part of the equation when it comes to improvisation; not every jazz solo is memorable, after all. But the music must always have something to say, and Tepfer certainly demonstrated a true affection for the master.

Written as a series of keyboard studies, the Goldberg Variations not only poses specific technical challenges but creates a unique mood in each section. And it’s up to the performer to find the right atmosphere, because Bach’s manuscript provides few tempo markings and no indications of dynamics or specific articulation. Certain “traditions” have emerged in which pianists tend to play certain variations in certain ways, but it was clear from the outset that Tepfer had his own ideas.

As a longtime jazz aficionado with a particular affection for such great pianists as Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett (the latter a particularly formidable long-form solo improvisor), I was especially curious what Tepfer would find in Bach to express in his own voice, and his answer was to bring out the especially pungent harmonic moments (and there are more of those than you might think), or turns of phrase that could have come from a jazz artist’s mind.

One of those occurs at the end of the aria theme, which Tepfer began with a quiet hesitance—not at all the flowing legato we usually hear—almost as if he were actually making it up on the spot. The aria ends with an appoggiatura: an F-sharp leading to the tonic G, played against a G in the left hand, creating a dissonance of a major seventh. Tepfer held that note extra-long, until the sound almost completely decayed, before quietly sounding the final G to resolve the tension. That’s something that would feel more natural to a jazz pianist than to a classical musician.

The equally understated jazz improvisation that followed began with the same naïve quality, but developed harmonically with more richness and a touch of quiet dissonance. Each variation received the same thoughtful treatment. The jazz improvisations that followed aimed to achieve a similar effect as Bach’s, or at least to address a similar technique issue, but in a different sort of dialect. If a later variation involved a virtuosic pattern of crossing hands, for example, Tepfer’s gloss did something similar.

Although Tepfer played Bach’s music with little or no pedal, he used it extensively in the jazz improvisations, which also became increasingly adventurous harmonically. His improvisations were woven from counterpoint—independent musical lines—in both hands, rather than the more typical jazz form of “comping” with chords in the left hand while spinning out a melody in the right. And he did this not just in the canons and fugues, but throughout.

Keeping each improvisation to approximately the same time as the variation that inspired it should have doubled the usual playing time of 80 minutes. But the performance spanned only 100 minutes because, wisely, Tepfer omitted the majority of Bach’s repeats.

Mostly, Tepfer would play a variation and segue immediately into his improvisation, pausing to reset his mind before the next set. Occasionally he would use the final measures of his own work to make a seamless tradition into Bach’s. The several penultimate variations, which most performers tend to think of as a sequence similar to a suite, usually lead to the final one as a majestic climax. Following that, the return of the simple aria often feels especially poignant.

Tepfer took a different tack, creating seamless transitions between the last two variations, leading to an unexpectedly soft and wistful finale. The jazz gloss on it was one of the evening’s highlights, circling back on several of Bach’s musical phrases (a sort of mashup of folks songs that would have been familiar to the composer and his friends) and weaving in strands of two or three familiar jazz standards. The harmonic texture thinned in the final measures, leading without pause into the aria. He let Bach have the last word, but with that long-held final appoggiatura, Tepfer’s inflection.

Harvey Steiman

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