Dan Tepfer has created a kaleidoscopic experience with his solo album Goldberg Variations / Variations, the jazz pianist approaching J.S. Bach's masterpiece one of the classical canon's most totemic works as an inspiring font for creativity. Interspersed with his affectionate interpretation of the complete "Goldbergs" are his own improvised variations on Bach's variations. No Jacques Loussier-style swinging of the classics, Tepfer's variations are marked by a ruminative joy, spiced with contemporary dissonances and a deep feel for the source as timeless music beyond category.
Although the Goldberg Variations are beloved now as an entrancing, virtually sacred work of art, Johann Sebastian Bach published the score consisting of an "aria" and a set of 30 variations in 1741 as a keyboard study, with the piece later nicknamed for the harpsichordist who might have been its first performer. From Glenn Gould to Pierre Hantaï, the modern world's greatest classical artists have performed and recorded the "Goldbergs." Investing himself totally in music he has known since childhood, Dan Tepfer recorded his Goldberg Variations / Variations completely solo, even engineering the late-night sessions himself for total immersion in the process. The result is both utterly individual and genuinely moving.
Goldberg Variations / Variations is the 29-year-old, New York-based Tepfer's sixth album as leader or co-leader, following three heading a trio, one of solo piano improvisations, and another featuring duets with veteran saxophone luminary Lee Konitz. Known for his rare improvisational gift and a complex yet melodic approach to music-making, the prize-winning pianist has been hailed as "a player of exceptional poise" by The New York Times, while Downbeat extolled his "ability to disappear into the music as he's making it."
For those who deem Bach's music untouchable, they should remember Stravinsky's rejoinder to those who criticized his transformation of Baroque compositions in Pulcinella as disrespectful: "You `respect,' but I love," he said. As for Tepfer, he says: "What I'm doing is definitely loving. But instead of recording the Goldberg Variations and then writing lengthy liner notes about how I feel about them, I'm expressing how I feel about them in music, with my improvisations on Bach's variations. One challenge was switching gears playing this classical music that's a real test for me and for so many pianists, then the next minute really improvising and being free."
With Bach using the same chord progression throughout the Goldberg Variations, his musical process wasn't as different from jazz as it might seem. "That is really what we do in jazz, particularly when playing standards," Tepfer explains. "We take the chord progression of a tune, and it's often as simple as Bach's Aria, and we make variations on it. Lee Konitz has been playing the same tunes his whole life. One of the amazing things about him is you'll play the same song with him on tour night after night say, `All the Things You Are' and it will be really different every night. So if you recorded all of those and put them end to end, it might sound like what Bach
had done with the `Goldbergs,' taking one simple piece of material and weaving all these different emotional states into it. With my improvisations, it was a case of, how much more diversity can I get out of this chord progression? And what's really important to me as an improviser is to have a voice. So I'm reacting to Bach with my own tone, my own vocabulary."
"a fascinating and engrossing listen... [Tepfer] meets exhilaration with exhilaration... A huge and unique success." - Peter Hum --Ottawa Citizen
"On his latest album, the 29-year-old pianist not only had the audacity to play Bach s Goldberg Variations he improvised on them. The results are elegant, thoughtful, and thrilling." --New York Magazine