For most artists, 2020 was a year of forced isolation and few opportunities. But Dan Tepfer, a jazz pianist and composer, had a busy year, partly thanks to his technological acumen.



Dan Tepfer is a jazz pianist and a composer, a classical performer, a programmer and an inventor. He's returning to in-person concerts this spring in New York and Europe. Tom Vitale has the story of how he stayed busy this past year.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In 2019, Dan Tepfer flew around the world twice on concert tours. He says it was the busiest year of his career. Then in March last year, the performances came to a grinding halt.

DAN TEPFER: As soon as the pandemic hit, I asked myself, you know, what can I do? What can I do that's going to be meaningful musically right now when the bottom has dropped out? And the first thing that came to mind was this Bach Upside Down project.

VITALE: Bach Upside Down is a computer program that inverts Bach's "Goldberg Variations" - in effect, turning the score upside down. Sitting at the Yamaha grand piano in his Brooklyn apartment, surrounded by two laptops, an iPad, a monitor, a video camera and studio lights, Tepfer plays the first "Goldberg Variation."

TEPFER: (Playing piano).

VITALE: The piano is a Disklavier. It can record and play back like an advanced player piano.

TEPFER: So now let's hear it upside down.


ANTHONY TOMMASINI: When you describe what he's doing, it sounds like a gimmick.

VITALE: Anthony Tommasini is chief music critic of The New York Times.

TOMMASINI: But then when I actually heard them, I thought, oh, no, no, it's beyond gimmick. It's really interesting. I mean, ultimately, I think the point of the upside down stuff is to make us hear better or in a new way Bach's "Goldberg Variations."

VITALE: The next project Tepfer tackled during the pandemic was a series of jazz concerts with other musicians in their apartments miles away streamed live over the internet. To make that happen, Tepfer said he had to figure out a way to overcome the lag between the signals.

TEPFER: Necessity is the mother of invention, and I discovered this software, JackTrip, that was actually about 10 years old and it's this pretty obscure academic piece of software that's brilliantly written. And it ferries musical information over the internet as quickly as possible.


CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing in French).

VITALE: Tepfer began to host weekly concerts, more than 50 in all, with noted musicians, including saxophonist Melissa Aldana and bassist Christian McBride. Last summer, he streamed a program of French songs with Cecile McLorin Salvant.


MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing in French).

I really admire Dan so, so much for the breadth of his knowledge and interests and the way that he builds bridges between those interests.

VITALE: Cecile Salvant says Dan Tepfer is a musician of vast talents.

MCLORIN SALVANT: His beautiful piano playing, his incredible taste, his sensitivity as a musician, and then he writes his music, and it's just so exciting to see somebody that bold with how they blend their interests.

VITALE: Dan Tepfer was raised with blended interests. He was born in Paris to American parents. His mother sang at the Paris Opera. His father was a biologist. He started classical lessons when he was 6. But he spent his summers in Oregon with his grandfather, who was a jazz pianist. At the University of Edinburgh, he majored in astrophysics.

TEPFER: This is what's always fascinating to me is the structure underlying the surface of what we see. And, you know, physics shows you that you can explain an amazing amount of that in the language of mathematics.

VITALE: Tepfer says that way of seeing the world has directly influenced his work. His background in math is at the heart of a project he calls Natural Machines, an algorithm he wrote for his piano to accompany him while he improvises.

TEPFER: This one's called "Constant Motion." (Playing piano).

VITALE: Tepfer says the more he branches out with his algorithms and Bach experiments, the more he needs to deepen his roots by playing with jazz musicians. Between 60 and 300 fans from around the world log into each of his livestream concerts, and he reads and responds to their comments in real time between the musical numbers.

TEPFER: And that's, I think, the thing I'm most proud of in what I've been doing during the pandemic is engaging in a real dialogue with my audience and creating the sense of community because, at the end of the day, I think the most important thing about music is that it brings us together.


MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing in French).

VITALE: Dan Tepfer says his next project is a virtual reality app that will allow users to experience his Natural Machines inside 3D visualizations of the music.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


MCLORIN SALVANT: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.