Ben Wendel and Dan Tepfer have a lot in common. Both of their mothers are opera singers. Both were born outside of the United States, but now reside in New York City. Both share a lifelong dedication to jazz music in all its forms.“Jazz is just sort of this word at this point that covers a huge span of time and music that’s been created,” Wendel said. “At this point it’s branched out into this world phenomenon that’s really hard to define. You can go to Brazil and hear Brazilian-infused jazz. You can go to China, I mean you can go anywhere and it’s happening. It’s all different, but the thing that keeps it the same, I think, is that there’s this spirit of freedom and spontaneity and creativity. To me, that’s something that I think is really important to hold on to, in the world in general.”Embarking on a tour in promotion of their first collaborative album, Wendel and Tepfer will play at Moody’s Bistro in Truckee on Friday, March 1. Born in Vancouver, Wendel is a multi-instrumentalist, favoring a variety of wind instruments. A pianist, Tepfer was born in Paris to American parents. Both have composed and recorded extensively, and worked with a variety of artists spanning many genres.The duo holed up last year in a Yamaha studio in midtown Manhattan with a wide range of instruments at their disposal. The end result is “Small Constructions,” to be released by Sunnyside Records on March 12.“We had this great opportunity. Dan is an endorsed Yamaha piano artist, and in Manhattan they have this completely beautiful showroom in their headquarters, which actually is perfectly acoustic as a studio,” Wendel said. “They basically just gave it to us for three days, and we brought in our own recording gear. With that much time on our hands we were able to just try a bunch of stuff and throw a bunch of stuff up against the wall basically, and see what stuck and what was really exciting to us musically. The album probably represents half of what we actually recorded.”“We got in there and just started experimenting with stuff, we really had no agenda,” Tepfer said. “It’s kind of interesting because it’s a pretty eclectic record but I feel like on the whole it really holds together.”The recording sessions produced a considerable amount of material, but Wendel and Tepfer both wanted to release an album relatively limited in length.“The whole album is around 50 minutes,” Wendel said. “One of the things we love about old LPs is that they’re just not that long. There’s something about that that’s really great, it makes you want to keep coming back to the album because it doesn’t drain you, you know? It’s like a perfect little meal.”While “Small Constructions” is the pair’s first duo record, they have played together frequently over their brief history.“We’ve worked quite a bit together,” Wendel said. “We’ve played in L.A., New York, Paris, Missoula, Montana, of all places.”The musicians first connected three years ago, although not at the first opportunity. A mutual friend of their mothers’ had been trying to get the two artists to meet one another, to the general reluctance of each.“This happens to both of us fairly often, and usually we’re not that excited about following up,” Tepfer said.The two met in New York City through some musician friends.“It was kind of like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, you’re that guy that my mom was trying to set me up with,’” Tepfer said.They hit it off together, developing a friendship based on their common love of jazz music, a musical bond that underscores both “Small Constructions” and the duo’s live shows.“I think for both of us there’s a huge focus on wanting to present a balanced show, a show where you feel like you go a lot of places and it has three dimensions to it,” Wendel said. “What that means for us is that on certain pieces there’s sort of an unspoken agreement that they’re going to be very free and that they’re going to be different every night that we play them and then other pieces will have more of a set agenda and form. That way, you get points that sort of ground the concert.”A common feature of jazz music, improvisation is a crucial part of the duo’s musical expression. “One of the people I’ve played with a lot is Lee Konitz. What he puts, before everything else, is improv,” Tepfer said. “If we’re going to be jazz musicians, if we’re going to do this with integrity, essentially we have to really commit to improvising. Because otherwise we should really just write everything out and plan it all ahead. Ben and I really get on board with that philosophy.”This focus on spontaneity demands both dedicated practice and onstage flexibility.“There’s a lot of preparation in the sense of just being able to be so free with the material that you can do whatever you want, ’cause that takes some work,” Tepfer said. “But then there’s also little preparation in terms of what’s actually going to happen. That we really want to leave up to the moment, so it can really be different every night.” “That’s the thing about this music,” Wendel said. “It’s the only music where you can make a mistake and then the mistake can lead to the best thing ever.”
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