Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Paris, France, in an American family. My folks are originally from Eugene, Oregon, and I spent a lot of time there growing up during the summers. So I have a mixed American / French cultural background.
Are you from a musical family?
My mom’s an opera singer. She was in the Paris Opera chorus for 20 years and still gives recitals around the city. My dad’s a biologist, but he can play some beautiful classical guitar, when he practices. My maternal grandfather was an important inspiration to me growing up. His name was Chuck Ruff, and he was a jazz pianist living in Eugene, Oregon. He was a big influence on a number of Oregon musicians who later became famous, such as Ralph Towner, Glen Moore and Nancy King. He died when I was 9, but I spent enough time with him and heard him play enough that I was already hooked on the idea of improvisation.
What attracted you to the piano/can you play any other instruments?
I think what initially attracted me to the piano, when I was 4 or 5 years old, was that it was there, in the house. Here’s a picture of me as a tiny kid reaching way up to the keys, above my head.
Once I started playing the piano, I felt an affinity for it that’s never died away — it still feels like a very natural extension of myself. I love playing other instruments, though. To me, that’s the single most important source of perspective on music that I can get. On another instrument, suddenly none of the technical things that I know on piano are there anymore, and I’m left with sheer, simple music. On my recent duo record with the great saxophonist Ben Wendel, we trade instruments on the last track — I play sax and he plays piano — and it’s one of my favorite numbers on the CD.
Aside from alto sax, I also play acoustic bass, guitar, drums, and I love to sing.
What age were you when you started to play the piano?
I started lessons when I was six. I took a year of private lessons with a friend of my mom’s from the Paris Opera chorus, then switched to the Paris Conservatory Paul Dukas.
How do you deal with the pressure and being on stage?
Somehow I’ve always felt pretty natural on stage, so it’s never been a real problem for me. But when I play very challenging music — for example in the concerts I’ve been doing over the last year and a half of my Goldberg Variations / Variations project, where I play the Goldberg Variations as they were written and add an improvised variation of my own after each one — I do sometimes get nervous.
I find things like focusing on my breathing and making sure my body is relaxed to be very helpful, as is watching what I eat during the day. Of course, what helps the most is being well prepared!
What is an ordinary day like for you?
I’m often on tour, which is never ordinary — it’s always different. But when I’m at home in Brooklyn, which I love, an ordinary day might go something like: get up in the morning, do something sporty — run around Prospect Park, do some yoga or play a game of tennis — then play a session with some jazz musicians — which means we just get together and play, cook some lunch, then practice for 2 or 3 hours and perhaps do some composing if the mood strikes me, then go out for dinner and catch a set of music somewhere (often the Village Vanguard). Truth is, each day is different — I never know what day of the week it is, for example. Essentially I try to ask myself what I want to do, and let myself do it.
Any thoughts on classical music?
It’s a somewhat arbitrary name for a long tradition of many different types of music. I just started reading Theodor Adorno‘s The Culture Industry. He writes that “serious music [has been] domesticated under the barbarous name of classical, so as to enable one to turn away from it again in comfort.” Improvising musicians have similar issues with the word “jazz.” Much of the music that I most love in the world falls under either the “classical” or “jazz” label, yet all great new music needs to fight to transcend those more-or-less meaningless categories.
What type of music do you listen to?
Good music. Of all kinds. I try to listen to things friends recommend, which can range from the dirtiest electronica to medieval plainchant.
Favorite composer or piece?
Oh my. Choosing amongst one’s children, and all that! No can do. It would have to be a very long list.
I’m particularly fond of a couple Italian restaurants near me in Brooklyn: Al Di La and Franny’s. I feel very lucky to be able to get great food just a few minutes from my apartment.
Favorite TV show(s)?
Really not a TV guy — I’ve never had one in my life. But I’ve gotten into watching a few things recently online: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It must be true what they say about this being a golden age of television, because those shows are good!
I love seasons, all of them. My favorite thing is the contrast between them, the transitions. I love New York for that — each season is so well defined. I’d have trouble living in Los Angeles for this reason. I think I’d feel like time were standing still.
Favorite vacation destination?
It’s really rare that I take a legitimate vacation, but: Mountains. Wherever they may be, the higher the better.
Interesting facts about yourself?
I’m a nerd. Recently I’ve been writing computer programs that generate music on their own, using algorithms.
Where would someone find you on a Saturday afternoon?
Somewhere, someplace, without the faintest idea what day of the week it is.
- Dan Tepfer, 2007 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz of the American Pianists Association