“When I was first thinking of making a record, I had this enormous plan of hiring about 50 people: a string quartet, all kinds of different musicians,” Joanna Wallfisch says on the telephone from her home in New York. Wallfisch, an English vocalist who combines the intimate purview of a singer-songwriter with the technical liberties of a jazz improviser, is talking about “The Origin of Adjustable Things,” ultimately a duo session with the elegant pianist Dan Tepfer. Wallfisch and Tepfer will celebrate the album’s arrival at the Lily Pad on Sunday night.
Once she’d decided against enlisting a village to make her album, Wallfisch consulted with her producer, Matt Pierson, about options attainable within the duo format. “We could have done a lot of overdubbing, playing all the instruments that we do know,” Wallfisch says. “But Matt was really insistent that this is voice and keyboard — whatever that means.”
The resulting mix of Wallfisch originals and offbeat covers (Tim Buckley, Radiohead, Dmitri Tiomkin) cuts a lean profile, mostly. But on “Satellite,” a moody ballad that Wallfisch originally had envisioned adorning with strings, Pierson’s edict inspired the use of a Mellotron. Effectively a prehistoric sampler, the vintage keyboard produces arresting orchestral sounds familiar from late ’60s hits such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Nights in White Satin,” as well as prog-rock epics by King Crimson and Genesis.
Central to the Mellotron’s workings are the sounds of actual instruments, captured on magnetic tape loops that are engaged with a keyboard. “Dan had this challenge, because each tape reel is only seven seconds long,” Wallfisch says of the pair’s learning curve. “You’d hear these beautiful chords, and then — zzzhupp! — you’re suddenly at the end.”
“Every time you touch a key, it’s picking up the tape head in this idiosyncratic way,” Tepfer chimes in to the three-way call. “And you never quite know when it’s going to hit the tape.”
Their painstaking effort pays off for the listener. The arcane device casts a haunted spell worthy of Nick Drake, complementing the clear-eyed poetry of Wallfisch’s lyrics, the wistful grace of her setting, and her melancholy vocal line, harmonized through overdubbing. Tepfer’s piano, heard alongside the Mellotron, is spare and crystalline.
Those qualities characterize Tepfer’s playing throughout the disc: a new look for an artist whose previous work, alone and with leaders such as Lee Konitz and Mark Turner, has been ornate and cerebral, though never stuffy. His best known project, “The Goldberg Variations/Variations,” involved not only playing the Bach work cited in the title, but also interpolating improvisations that take the Bach as raw material.
He confirms that this album was a departure. “To anyone who’s checked out a little bit of my music, you quickly realize that I’m attracted to pretty brainy stuff; I’m very attracted to ideas, and virtuosity at the service of an idea,” he says. “Working with Jo, I realized that my challenge with her was to be at the service of a story, and at the service of an emotion. This is maybe the first time I realized what a high challenge it is to be true to an emotion, and to really stay there for the length of a song or the length of a set.”
For the singer, who’d been bitten by the jazz bug after hearing an Ella Fitzgerald LP when she was 12, crossing borders and flouting rules seem to come naturally to the youngest child of a renowned classical-music dynasty.
“I had classical music coming out of my ears, as it were,” Wallfisch says. “But I was a very bad student; I hated my piano and violin lessons.”
Instead, she wrote poetry and earned a degree in painting. Visiting Paris while in school, she fell in with a jazz band, busked in the streets, and found her calling as an improvising vocalist. Wallfisch recorded “Wild Swan,” her self-released debut album, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and crossed paths briefly with Tepfer — himself the French-born son of an opera singer. When Wallfisch relocated to New York a few years later, a serendipitous subway ride reconnected them.
Like Tepfer, Wallfisch attests to discoveries made in collaboration. “The very first day Dan and I had a session together, I showed him this video of me singing on trapeze with a ukulele,” she recalls. “And he was like, ‘This is cool, but what are you doing it for? Are you going to be a trapeze artist, or are you going to be a singer?’ ”
“I was such a killjoy,” Tepfer says, laughing.
“You know, you were a little bit of a killjoy at the start,” Wallfisch confirms. Even so, she qualifies, Tepfer showed her that pursuing a career in earnest requires singleminded focus. “My big challenge in this last year has been in literally doing nothing but music, and working in a much more analytical way,” Wallfisch says. “Dan is very honest, and comes from this sort of analytical, perfectionist point, and I’m really not a perfectionist in any stretch: I create things very quickly, a huge whirlwind of creativity, and it’s done and I move on.”
Since starting to work with Tepfer, she says, she’s slowed down and started scrutinizing her work more closely. “I don’t know,” she says, “maybe I've learned to be a good student.”Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @nightafternight.
An earlier version of this story had the name of the album incorrect. It is “The Origin of Adjustable Things.”