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Benny Lackner: Evolving the Piano Trio Tradition

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Jazz is a very big animal that changes constantly.
Benny LacknerAt 29, pianist Benny Lackner has just released Sign of the Times, his second CD for the prestigious Nagel Heyer label, touring Europe and paving way for his dream—playing at the Village Vanguard in NYC and the main jazz festivals around the world.

I caught up with him at the Hot Club de Portugal, in Lisbon, one of the oldest jazz clubs in the world, whose stage has hosted musicians from Bill Coleman and Dexter Gordon to Mark Turner and Nicholas Payton. Lackner and his trio, with bassist Derek Nievergelt and drummer John B. Arnold, left quite an impression amongst the audience, and drawing the attention of Portuguese jazz festival producers, the same that first hired a then unknown Brad Mehldau trio over a decade ago.

All About Jazz: What are the signs of the times in your music?

Benny Lackner: Tough question... continuing the jazz piano trio and what it means to me as a 29 year-old in 2006 and the importance of continuing all the right elements from Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and the Keith Jarrett Trio, incorporating it with modern material and making it accessible to a younger audience. Not only because I want to last, but also because it has to evolve so that younger generations stay interested and then discover and get interested in the masters. And I am not comparing myself, merely continuing a lineage.

AAJ: What are you incorporating that speaks to a younger generation?

BL: Drum 'n' bass, electronic effects, hip hop...I feel like when we play just swing older generations really like it. Younger generations like groove and back beat and faster rhythm that are not swinging. It's a real balancing act because I don't want to alienate anybody.

AAJ: That's why you have standards on your new album?

BL: Yes, the standards on this record are also very dear to me.

AAJ: If you had to define this record in one word, what would you say?

BL: I would say contemporary, meaning it represents what is going on in music today and we are commenting on what is going on, which is exactly what every jazz musician has done in the past. We are only continuing the tradition of playing popular songs from our time just like they did in the thirties. I feel like that tradition stopped in the eighties where a lot of players started looking back rather then continuing the tradition of interpreting what is contemporary.

AAJ: What about colors? Do you associate your music with any colors?

BL: I am always drawn to dissonance and dark colors, maybe dark blue. It doesn't help that the record is white and orange.

AAJ: What about if this record was an animal?

BL: I feel like it is romantic in a way and I care about harmony but also dissonance...so maybe an animal that is loving like a bear...we can also be aggressive but warm.

AAJ: That's nice.

BL: Well, maybe a small bear...like the Berliner Bear.

AAJ: I find your new record, Sign of the Times, quite magical. Where does the magic come from?

BL: Thank you so much. I think that the sound of it is beautiful. At the time of the record we knew the material really well. And we love each other and there is no sense of having to prove yourself to each other. I tried to really develop the theme of the songs and pay attention to the arc of the solos and make it relate to each song. But mainly, there was no thought. It just came out.

AAJ: You got some very good reviews about your first record. What expectations do you have for this new album? In what way is it different?

BL: I have very high expectations for the new album. In a lot of ways I feel that it is much stronger, because it documents our live interaction better. The first CD we were together for two months and we incorporated a lot of post-production and overdubs. The new one is completely live and it is almost a documentation of what we sound like live. The overall sound is also much better because of the studio. Although we almost only had raving reviews of the first one, I predict that the critics will like this one better...

AAJ: I noticed that there are some expectations from the critics for this new release. Do you feel like Nagel Heyer Records has helped make you more visible to the public and the media?

BL: I do, I feel like I have gotten to where I am now because of them (indirectly). I tried booking my own tours before and it was impossible. As soon as they signed me I had a much easier time booking tours—and they do their share of PR as well.

AAJ: How many concerts are you doing on this tour?

BL: Seventeen in five countries.

AAJ: And how many tours have you done?

BL: This is our third tour to Europe and we are doing our fourth in the fall of 2006...

AAJ: Is there any major difference from tour to tour?

BL: Every tour has been better and better. On this tour we are only playing in jazz clubs and in five clubs for more than one night... That development is very important. The first tour we did it in a beat up VW bus and played some smaller places back in November of 2003...


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