After six years with his working trio of Richie Barshay on drums and Jorge Roeder on bass, pianist Dan Tepfer is branching out. Last year he recorded a conversational duo with Lee Konitz, the aptly titled Duos with Lee, and continued work on his ambitious “Goldberg Variations/Variations” project, in which he plays each of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Arias as written, following each with his own improvisatory interpretation. His lissome new album, Five Pedals Deep (buy it from Amazon), continues his melodic investigations, this time with solid but sensitive accompaniment from bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Ted Poor.
His tunes come in lyrical waves, led by the chiming and digressive efforts of his right hand, during which his ear for grand, anthemic ballads is inevitably, and lovingly, deconstructed by stabbing explorations. On his cover of Jacques Brel’s “Le Plat Plays,” a march tempo is set by Poor’s snare, as Tepfer eases into the mournful lower-register melody. A sharply plucked string from Morgan sets Tepfer off on his first journey, heading up the scale to dance around the tune, a brightness setting in. Then he tosses off a Tourette-ic cluster of notes, expanding and contracting the space around his rhythm section. The way he offsets this minor explosion with the delicacy of his return to the main theme is a small revelation. Everything shrinks and becomes more beautiful.
With Barshay and Roeder, Tepfer had developed an internal language, a rapport that bent the music to their own ends. As he told Josh Jackson in an interview on the WBGO show “The Checkout,” on the new album he was looking for something “much less personal.” On Five Pedals Deep he wants the tunes to stand as tunes, not as interpretations (he wants musicians like Fred Astaire, who was beloved by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter for serving the songs as written). He came to this conclusion after touring in Eastern Europe, in which he gigged with local artists who had to come to his material afresh, simply reading it off the page. Perhaps it’s his classical training seeping in—he started studying at the age of six at the Paris Conservatoire Paul Dukas—but Five Pedals Deep is focused on composition and the surprise of first impressions.
In a helpful maneuver, his titles act as roadmaps to his tunes. His original “Peal, Repeal” starts off with aggressive, bell-like harmonizing between his left and right hands, reaching a frenzied peak before he lets the sound slow down and die out. “Diverge” begins with Tepfer alone, spraying a cataract of notes in an off-kilter melody, before he drops out and Morgan takes over with a hard-plucked interpretation. Tepfer eases back in with some chiming comping until everyone reaches a tipsy understanding, and they start playing in clanging unison three minutes in. Then things get really interesting.
My favorite piece, though, is “I Was Wonderin’,” a giddy showcase for all of Tepfer’s melodic gifts. The central figure is a swinging, lilting thing that would have Ginger Rogers falling for Astaire in the first reel. But Tepfer downshifts into a swirling, moody tangent, as if questioning the utility of such pleasure. Poor’s plashing cymbals echo this dramatic self-doubt. It all ends in a kind of lovely détente, never fully embracing the melody but letting guilty impressions of it slip through. It’s the kind of thoughtful interrogation that defines this prickly and elegant album.
—R. Emmet Sweeney