Pianist Benny Lackner has made some waves in the past couple of years for his work in the genre-bending pop/jazz group Maroon, but it is with Not the Same
that he finally gets the chance to step out and prove his mettle in the piano trio format. The piano trio has received some invigorating new blood in recent years with the fresh approaches of groups including the Bad Plus and E.S.T., and, to be certain, Lackner's vision fits within that space, leaning more to the melodious side that E.S.T. mines so successfully. But while there are certainly parallels to be drawn between Lackner and pianist Esbjorn Svensson of E.S.T., there are some differences as well.
One difference is Lackner's use of electronic keyboards. While the piano is unquestionably his primary instrument, Lackner also uses Fender Rhodes and a variety of other keyboards to texturize his work. Yes, Svensson does as well, but less dramatically and with less command. Furthermore, Svensson and his trio, with one notable exception, Plays Monk , has worked exclusively with group compositions. Lackner, on the other hand, splits his record between original pieces and tunes by Monk, Mingus, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake and, in a surprisingly successful move, the '80s pop hit "99 Luftballons"which in his hands becomes a little more urgent, with drummer Robert Perkins' brushwork driving the simple reharmonized theme.
Lackner also shares a penchant for simple melodies that, while singable, are sometimes a little oddly askew also, something he no doubt learned from his time studying with Brad Mehldau. In fact, as much as the parallels can be drawn between Lackner and Svensson, there's a certain intellectual aloofness permeating his work that draws from Mehldau. "Bushisms" is the best example of this tendency, with a conventional set of changes that are expanded by his melody which, while oblique, is oddly compelling. If Svensson wears his primary influence (Jarrett) on his sleeve, Lackner may be the first established pianist to come from the Mehldau school. His take on Monk's "Bemsha Swing" and his version of Nick Drake's "Riverman," already a Mehldau staple, could both be outtakes from Mehldau's own Largo .
But it is with his own writing that Lackner distinguishes himself the most. "Red Hook," with its lightly funky groove, and "Sheep's Dog," with its more driving bottom-heavy rhythmic conceit, demonstrate a style that combines the pop sensibility of E.S.T., the quirky disposition of the Bad Plus (albeit less aggressively so) and the reflective personality of Mehldau into something that feels familiar in all those spheres and yet has a personal voice of its own. And bassist Derek Nievergelt, also from Maroon, and Perkins demonstrate a looser approach than either the Bad Plus or E.S.T., giving the proceedings a more collective improvisational edge.
Not the Same , along with Maroon's Who the Sky Betrays ('03), paints a strong portrait of Benny Lackner, an emerging pianist who, with a contemporary approach, helps give the piano trio a much-needed facelift.
Personnel: Benny Lackner: piano, Fender Rhodes, Nordelectro, Nordlead 2, Hohner Pianet;
Derek Nievergelt: acoustic and electric bass; Robert Perkins: drums and percussion.