Dan Tepfer – ‘Eleven Cages’

There’s a certain kind of irony in making music so undeniably playful while insisting that the thematic element behind the music itself is cages. It’s hard to be playful in a cage. Sure, there’s playfulness in exploring boundaries, but one doesn’t typically find joy in the boundaries themselves. Yet, this pianist Dan Tepfer plays in this irony, bouncing off the walls with his trio members, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Nate Wood, finding so much room between the bars of Tepfer’s Eleven Cages, out now on Sunnyside.

Tepfer states in the liner notes, “There’s something about cages that magnifies freedom… Constraints surround freedom and give it a frame, be they physical cages or a formal structure we choose to create within. They challenge us to ask: How free I can be inside this particular cage? How much wiggle room is there? At the end of the day, we are all encaged in some way — by the limits of our bodies, of our minds, of the political system we find ourselves in. The best we can do is find the wiggle room, and use it.” Freedom is defined by perspective, as if this were some musical “Allegory of the Cave”. It’s a very self-aware concept, malleable and worthy to behold at various angles. For Tepfer to take such a concept and more straightforwardly apply it to music is an interesting approach hermeneutically, let alone if one were to look at this music based solely on its merits.

Thus the interplay of Eleven Cages becomes more clear. It’s the classic piano trio album, there were piano-bass-drum trios before this and there will be trio albums after them. What matters is the conversation these three players are having now. In his original compositions, this trio is playing with the boundaries of time– tunes’ signatures change on a dime, beats are added and dropped, assorted cultural influences are meshed with the beautiful, aural messiness that comes with it. In regard to how a piano trio plays specifically with time itself, folks haven’t delved that deep into that question all that often since Dave Brubeck started messin’ with the Turks. Thomas Morgan’s snap and pliability is perfect here, particularly so well integrated into Tepfer’s sound as a longstanding bandmate of his. Yet Nate Wood, best known for his work with Kneebody (though his fOUR series ain’t nothing to sneeze at, either), hugs the compositional turns of the road perfectly here, stopping and starting where he needs to like on the shifting “547” or the jumbly “Converge”, and fills out this trio sound more than adequately. There’s always something going on with Wood, which draws even more attention to the idea that there’s always something going on with all these guys.

Little known fact– I’m a sucker for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”. I’m not well-versed in the Bey; I’ve never heard a full one of her albums (my only real exposure to Lemonade was in Titus Burgess & Jeff Richmond’s masterful rendition of it on the second episode of the latest season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), however, the woman makes hits and this one always manages to make me dance (and this song, embarrassingly so). So while there’s definitely a lot of great songs on here, nothing will get you moving quite like Tepfer, Morgan, and Wood’s take on this new classic and the lengths they take it.

Eleven Cages is a trio album that’s in the top tier of trio albums you need to hear this year. It’s innovative, interesting, and certainly takes the format of this instrumental structure places where it has yet to go but has been yearning to for a little while now. Tepfer hasn’t playing in the trio format since 2010. If this is a result of such patience, it’s a pretty good thing he took his time.

Eleven Cages, the new trio album from pianist Dan Tepfer, is out now on Sunnyside Records.

Dan Tepfer – piano
Thomas Morgan – bass
Nate Wood – drums