Last April, in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic, jazz pianist Dan Tepfer was on appeal with his friend Ben Wendel, jazz saxophonist. Wendel had flown to Maui just before the lockdown, and now he was stuck there – not that bad, except he was desperate to play music with friends in New York City. He asked Tepfer, a self-taught coder, if there was any technology that would allow him to play in real time with someone from this far away. Tepfer, who lives in Brooklyn, did a quick calculation: Wendel was eighty-nine hundred miles from New York; a flawless signal, traveling at the speed of light from Maui, would take twenty-six milliseconds to arrive. Studies have shown that the faster rhythms cannot be consistently maintained with shifts of more than about twenty milliseconds. He said to Wendel: “Conclusion: I’m fine never occur by the pure laws of physics.
But the question made Tepfer wonder if there was a computer program that would allow real-time music to be made across, say, the tri-state region. He asked the question on Twitter. An answer came the next day: Two musicians from the West Coast had been playing a duet on the internet for years, using an open source software platform called JackTrip. Tepfer downloaded it right away. The next day he texted bassist Jorge Roeder, a friend and frequent collaborator, who lives less than two miles away. It took them a while to install the software on their laptops, but soon enough they were playing songs, taking solos, and trading fours.
“We had tears rolling down our faces because we hadn’t played with anyone else for six weeks,” Tepfer recalls. Ten days later, Tepfer found a way to sync JackTrip audio with video streaming. (Zoom’s audio delay can be up to half a second, perfect for conversation, worthless for music.) On May 11, he gave a virtual solo concert for members of the Arts Club of Washington; he brought Roeder over to JackTrip to join him for an opener.
Soon Tepfer began broadcasting live duet concerts with various New York-area jazz musicians – twenty-nine concerts over the next ten months, including one with Wendel, who had just returned from Maui, as well as ‘with pianists Fred Hersch and Aaron Diehl. , singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, saxophonist Miguel Zenón and bassist Linda May Han Oh. He charged five dollars for the tickets, with the option of making a larger donation. “We’re winning almost as much as I used to win for a set at a club,” Tepfer said. During sets, between songs, Tepfer would read the comments page aloud and ask viewers to submit song requests. “I want people to know that this is happening in real time, right now, and that it is dangerous,” he said.
Thirty-nine-year-old Tepfer had never broadcast live before the pandemic, but he was well suited to the medium. Born of Americans who emigrated to Paris (his father was a biologist, his mother a chorister at the city opera), he took piano lessons at the Paul Dukas Conservatory at the age of seven and learned to code on his own. several years later. He majored in astrophysics at university and did graduate studies in jazz at the New England Conservatory. In recent years, he has used computer programming in his music, plugging algorithms into a specially modified Yamaha piano that plays with him as he improvises. Last March, for #BachUpsideDown, he programmed the piano to play an inverted interpretation of the Goldberg Variations.
For its JackTrip duos, Tepfer imagined a setup using two laptops: one for the software and the other for the audio mixing and live stream. He also installed a pair of studio lamps for them and some scotch aluminum foil, like a lampshade, to darken his back wall, making his modest living room feel like a professional studio. There were a lot of glitches along the way. (“This technology is not plug-and-play,” he said.) At one point, the audio and video were out of sync. He understood that the problem was an overheating laptop. “I put an ice pack on it; that solved the problem, ”he said.
He also worked with JackTrip creator Chris Chafe and Anton Runov, a St. Petersburg-based programmer, to improve the program’s ability to balance speed and clarity during concerts. At the beginning of November, the music imposed itself transparently. When he streamed duets live with bassist Christian McBride, who lives thirty miles away in Montclair, New Jersey, the lag was virtually undetectable. McBride marveled, “Looks like we’re playing in two booths in the same recording studio!
Then Tepfer got ambitious: he decided to broadcast a trio live, with Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Harland on drums, 130 miles away in the woods of Pennsylvania. Neither Harland nor Roeder had a fiber optic internet connection. (Tepfer had signed up for one only a few months after the lockdown. Before that, he was unrolling a hundred-foot Ethernet cable to his laptop from a neighbor’s apartment.) They all met remotely one Sunday afterwards. – midday, the day before the live broadcast was scheduled. Tepfer thought the technical setup would take an hour; it took three.
At first, the trio struggled to find an acceptable balance. “Darn That Dream”, a ballad, sounded good; a faster one was out of sync. Maybe they should stick to playing slow songs? Tepfer entered new parameters. After another hour of tweaking, they managed to stay in sync for a fast-paced Charlie Parker bebop tune. “Whoo, I feel like we’re in business now! Tepfer said. The trio embarked on the rhythmic “Solar” of Miles Davis. They were loose, tight and loose at the same time. Then Harland put down his wands and sighed.