By Variation 30, the canon has become a quodlibet – which Tepfer translates as a “mash-up” of popular tunes from Bach’s day. “In the canon, the two voices are controlled by each other,” the second voice repeating the first. “But in a quodlibet, they’re controlled by the outside world.” Tepfer answers Bach’s quodlibet with his own mashup of modern pop tunes.
“I think part of the magic of Bach, in a way, is that the profound emotion you can feel from it is a result of its formal purity. It’s kind of like if Bach weren’t quite as good as he was, he would be insanely boring. But he’s so good that it suddenly reaches this point of transcendence.”
Tepfer’s method of “answering” each Bach variation with one of his own improvisations is provocative. His answer to Variation 4 is disjointed and bluesy, with a humorous plunking bassline; Variation 9 is “out” jazz, rhythmically and harmonically. In Variation 14 he responds to Bach’s dancing triplets with his own virtuoso flights, and Variation 21, taken at a ballad tempo, has a gauzy, Ravel-like harmonic ambiguity. On first listening, I found the shifts from Bach to Tepfer almost too jarring, especially given his elegant readings of the Bach. And I’d be tempted to program the Tepfer-only version of this album for my iPod. But after a couple more listens, I adjusted, and the Bach/Tepfer variations took on the cast of a unified piece.
Tepfer might have become a classical pianist if not for his love of improvising. Still, no improvisation, he says, can compare to the structural perfection of a Bach composition. “In a way, what I love about [jazz improvisation] is that we acknowledge that, but what we’re doing is pointing out what is perfect about improvisation.” The point he says, is “to play the things that are meaningful to you when you’re playing. You might feel differently about those notes when you’re playing them than when you wrote them.”
DAN TEPFER | Regattabar, Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St, Cambridge | April 25 | 7:30 pm | $20 | 617.395.7757