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Tepfer was born in Paris to American parents in 1982, and after earning a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics in Scotland he devoted his energies to music, moving to the U.S. and studying at the New England Conservatory. He’s played and recorded regularly with heavies like drummer Paul Motian and brilliant alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, a Chicago native and disciple of Lennie Tristano.
I only learned about Tepfer’s solo concert a few days ago, at which point to be honest I knew nothing about him, so I checked out his recent album with Konitz, Duos With Lee (Sunnyside). I’ve only had time to listen to the disc a couple of times, but it made a strong first impression.
All but three of the 13 tracks were freely improvised, but to judge from the keen empathy and easy fluidity you might not know it. Tepfer and Konitz recorded a bunch of standards at the session, but they chose to focus on the improvisations because, as Tepfer says in the PR, “They captured the mysterious and searching quality of Lee’s playing, which I love so much, better than anything else.”
As for Tepfer, his playing is marked by an astonishingly light touch and an ear for rich harmonies that give Konitz plenty to work with. Much of his phrasing has a strong classical feel to my ears, as though he were dropping in snippets of Beethoven sonatas. Most of the pieces are short—all but one of the improvisations is under three minutes—but they say a lot.
I couldn’t get my hands on any more Tepfer CDs on such short notice, but I was eager to hear more of him. Luckily I found a radio broadcast from a French concert online—a different Tepfer-Konitz duo, with bassist Ben Street sitting in on most of the tunes—and though on standards the pianist has a more conventional jazz sound, his partnership with Konitz is just as simpatico as it is on Duos With Lee.
Zola Jesus is the stage name of Nika Danilova from Madison, Wisconsin, a late addition to this weekend’s Adventures in Modern Music festival at the Empty Bottle. It’s an appropriate choice for a postgoth singer who bathes her acrobatic voice (there’s a bit of Siouxsie Sioux in her piercing midrange and some Diamanda Galas in her high notes) in murky, reverb-drenched minimalist beats and heavily manipulated electronic textures. She studied opera when she was young (I’m always amazed by how many people turn out to have that particular credential) and clearly learned something—in the codas to a few tracks here she pours on the soprano curlicues. In one interview I’ve read, she jokes that she wants to be “the next gothic Barbra Streisand,” though she doesn't say who the current one is.
Her latest album, The Spoils (Sacred Bones), is a real improvement over her earlier releases (like New Amsterdam, a CD-R recorded live on New York’s WNYU). Her instrumental creations hijack the minimalist throb of Suicide and toss it into a disorienting whirlpool, equal parts spooky ambience and harrowing gloom. And though Danilova is only 19, the music doesn't sound like the youthful indulgence of a college kid with an all-black wardrobe—her vocal control takes it to another level entirely. She's not just wailing; she has a sharp command of pitch. And though the milky reverb on everything washes out a lot of nuance, there’s no missing the care with which she shapes her sorrowful melodies.
Dan Tepfer photo: Vincent Soyez