In this Sunday's Arts & Leisure section, you'll find a chirpy little interview with multi-reedist Ben Wendel and pianist Dan Tepfer, in advance of their excellent new album, Small Constructions (Sunnyside), and next Wednesday's gig at the Rubin Museum of Art. We spoke in the basement lair of New York Times photographer Tony Cenicola, on the same day that Wendel and Tepfer taped the above footage at WBGO.
The interview was held for Snapshot, a fairly recent A&L fixture intended to shine a light on breakout young talent. (In recent weeks it has featured comic actor Mather Zickel, non-comic actress Julia Garner, and Brit-soul singer Jessie Ware.) I was glad to have snuck the first improvising musicians into rotation.
But of course, space limitations meant that our conversation had to be truncated, and that some cool things hit the figurative cutting-room floor. One tangent in particular struck me as worth salvaging and posting here. Wendel's comment about the absence of a normalizing incentive provided by major labels was of special interest to me; I tossed off a similar comment recently in conversation with Ben Ratliff (something about "the upside of the collapsed infrastructure"), and it was good to hear validation from an informed source.
The two of you belong to a loose coalition of players roughly the same age, who have this total fluidity with style. Do you feel like you’re part of a movement? And do you feel on the same page with each other in this regard?
Wendel: Yeah, definitely. Especially in New York there’s really tight-knit communities of friends, and I think it’s very common to gravitate towards people who have shared common interests or likes in music. I definitely feel that way. Even though within that range of people that you’re describing there’s a really wide aesthetic range, there’s definitely this common aesthetic thread. I remember someone recently defined jazz as the music that jazz musicians play at the time that they’re living. That’s us: we love Radiohead and Bon Iver, and we love Mussogorsky and we love Duke Ellington. Hopefully that’s all going to be expressed through what we create.
Tepfer: I feel so much that way that I almost have to make a mental effort to think of what it would be if it weren’t that. It just seems so obvious. All the people I hang out with, we’re talking about what we find to be good music. Like the Duke Ellington quote, it just seems so obvious. This is good music, this is bad music. I don’t really know anybody who’s thinking in terms of a limitation of style. Everything is very clearly available to us at this point. I have a classical composer friend who’s in his 50s, and he was just saying that we’re so lucky these days. When he was coming up, you had to write serial music. Likewise in jazz, there was definitely a certain time where we were feeling these limitations. We live in a really exciting time in that respect.
Wendel: I feel like there’s a socioeconomic element to it too. Which is, like, we never even experienced even the idea of the bigger record deal, and having to conform to those industries. We missed that boat. I have friends that are 10 years older than me that were part of that experience, and know what’s gone. It’s like, well, I don’t even mourn the loss of anything. I never had it.
Tepfer: We’re literally in this position of just trying to make music that we like to listen to. Because there’s not going to be that many people buying the record, even if it’s a big success. Of six or seven billion people on earth, there’s going to be a number of people who feel probably pretty much the same way as I do, aesthetically speaking. We have access to all those people now.
Wendel: My sister, she does work in p.r. Her whole thing is, you’re not trying to please everyone anymore, you’re just trying to find your tribe. And if your tribe is .00001% of seven billion people, you’re fine.
Tepfer: It’s incredibly liberating. I really had that epiphany with the Goldberg Variations. Because I was doing this really strange project that hadn’t really been done that way before. And I’m sitting there and realizing that at certain points, I would do a take that I felt OK about. Like, “Oh. This is cool, I can put this out into the world.” And I realized that there’s literally a switch when that happens. And that was a total epiphany for me. Everything I make now is that. Nobody knows anything about what else is important. It used to be marketing and styles and all that stuff, but that’s literally not even relevant now to the marketplace.