Last April, in the middle of the pandemicIn the first wave, the jazz pianist Dan Tepfer telephoned his friend Ben Wendel, a jazz saxophonist. Wendel had flown to Maui shortly before the lockdown, and now he was stuck there – not so terrible, except that he was dying to make music with friends in New York. He asked Tepfer, who is self-taught, if there was any technology that would allow him to play in real time with someone so far away. Tepfer, who lives in Brooklyn, did the math: Wendel was forty-nine miles from New York; It would take 26 milliseconds for a proper signal to arrive at the speed of light from Maui. Studies showed that faster rhythms with time delays greater than twenty milliseconds could not be sustained coherently. He said to Wendel: “Conclusion: it will never happen through mere laws of physics.”
But the question made Tepfer wonder whether there was a computer program with which music could be made in real time, for example in the three-state area. He posted the request on Twitter. The next day came an answer: two musicians on the west coast had been playing duets over the Internet for years, using an open source software platform called JackTrip. Tepfer downloaded it immediately. 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 get the software set up on their laptops, but soon they were playing music, taking solos, and trading fours.
“We had tears on our faces because we hadn’t played with anyone for six weeks,” recalled Tepfer. Ten days later, Tepfer worked out a way to synchronize JackTrip audio with video streaming. (Zoo’s audio delay can be up to half a second – good for conversation, worthless for music.) On May 11th, he gave a virtual solo concert for members of the Arts Club of Washington; He brought Roeder on JackTrip to join him for a start.
Soon Tepfer began streaming live duet concerts with various jazz musicians from the New York area.twenty-nine concerts in 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 tickets with the option to make a larger donation. “We do almost as much as we used to do for one set in a club,” said Tepfer. During the sets between songs, Tepfer read the comments page and asked viewers to send in song requests. “I want people to know that this is happening in real time and that it is dangerous,” he said.
Thirty-nine-year-old Tepfer had never streamed live before the pandemic, but was well suited for the medium. He was born in Paris as the son of American emigrants (his father was a biologist, his mother a chorister in the city opera). From the age of seven he took piano lessons at the Paul Dukas Conservatory and taught himself to code a few years later. He studied astrophysics in college and studied jazz at the New England Conservatory. In recent years he has used computer programming in his music and put algorithms into a specially modified Yamaha piano that plays along with improvising. In March of last year, he programmed the piano for #BachUpsideDown to play the reverse of the piano Goldberg Variations.
For his JackTrip duets, Tepfer developed a setup with two laptops: one for the software and one for the audio mix and the live stream. He also installed a pair of studio lights and taped aluminum foil like a shade to shade his back wall and give his humble living room the feel of a professional studio. There were many mishaps along the way. (“This technology isn’t plug and play,” he said.) At some point, the audio and video were out of sync. He found out that the problem was an overheated laptop. “I put an ice pack on it. that solved it, ”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. In early November the music came across seamlessly. When he broadcast duets with bassist Christian McBride, thirty miles away, live in Montclair, New Jersey, the time lag was virtually undetectable. McBride wondered: “It sounds like we’re playing in two booths in the same recording studio!”
Then Tepfer got ambitious: he decided to stream live a trio, with Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Harland on drums, a hundred and thirty miles away in the Pennsylvania woods. Neither Harland nor Roeder had a fiber optic internet connection. (Tepfer had signed up for one just a few months after the lockdown. Previously, he had unwound a thirty-foot ethernet cable from a neighbor’s apartment to his laptop.) They all came from afar on a Sunday afternoon, the day before together live stream was planned. 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 need to stick to playing slow songs? Tepfer typed in a few new settings. After another hour of tweaking, they managed to stay in sync for a quick Charlie Parker bebop tune. “Whoo, I feel like we’re in business now!” Said Tepfer. The trio started in Miles Davis’ fast-paced “Solar”. They were lively, tight and easy at the same time. Then Harland put down his drumsticks and sighed.