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Benny Lackner: Evolving the Piano Trio Tradition

By Published: July 4, 2006
AAJ: Did you gig as a teenager?

BL: Yes, with one guy that I play with in NY, Jonathan Haffner. We used to play in cafes and restaurants and go through the Real Book. I had a regular Friday night in Santa Barbara where I developed a mailing list and was booking gigs at fifteen... Then it really took off in my college years in LA until the real shock came when I moved to NY in 1998—I thought I was ready at 22. I got my ass kicked, I heard stuff like, "you need to learn how to comp like Red Garland and play the changes and learn bebop. I was a waiter with no gigs for two years. I served Ron Carter mashed potatoes and a diet coke [laughs)].

AAJ: But you never played with him?

BL: Nope, not yet. But, actually, Derek still studies with him.

AAJ: And then you started playing with respected guys in the jazz scene. How did that happen?

BL: I have always been one who organizes things for myself when they aren't happening. I organized a few anti-war concerts under the name Jazz Against War (J.A.W.) with [singer] Hillary Maroon and brought together [guitarists] Marc Ribot and Brad Shepik, Elvis Costello and the Jazz Passengers. The scene is very small and eventually you start meeting people. But even now, instead of going to jam sessions I am at home booking my tours.

AAJ: How many hours a day do you practice?

BL: It goes in cycles... When I am booking a tour maybe an hour a day but when I have the time maybe four hours—but that is rare.

AAJ: Where do you want to be in ten years? What do you want to have accomplished musically?

BL: My own approach becomes more clear when I actually sit down and work on the tradition, because it becomes very obvious what has been done before. I am finally not worried anymore about what people will think of me in 200 years. Just living my life and learning music is what's important. Life and music are the same thing and I am only developing my own voice because I am living my own life...

AAJ: What is your reason for being involved in music?

BL: It just struck a chord with me when I was young and I knew back then that I wanted to be a musician. I was never forced by my parents, which is something I try to remember as a teacher. I love talking to people and I love interacting with people musically. It's tricky finding musicians that are saying something interesting and are listening, just like having a good conversation.

AAJ: Is there a message that you would like to convey in your music that can't be said in words?

BL: I think more in terms of emotions. There is sadness like the sadness I feel about the state of the world and then there are joy and humor—and there is a beauty in sadness.

AAJ: How can you help someone understand what is different about your trio?

BL: Harmonically, we draw from the romantics, Monk, and the ambient feel of Radiohead—these are the three elements we draw from.

Benny Lackner
Benny Lacker Trio at the Hot Club de Portugal, April 2006

AAJ: How do people in different countries react to your music?

BL: Everywhere we go someone is floored and tells me that I am on the right path. The audiences in Europe are very educated and know their jazz. It is a great compliment when someone walks up to me and knows all the newest cats on the scene and is still impressed by us. In the US it is different. There are less experienced jazz aficionados that dedicate their life to it. We just played in California and two out of ten shows where rewarding.

AAJ: So Europe is better?

BL: Yeah, but there is hope for us in NYC. If we do well in Europe we do well in NYC and vice versa.

AAJ: Ok, now just a few straight answers... What label would you like to be on in the near future?


AAJ: A musician would you like to play with?

BL: Wayne Shorter.

AAJ: The musician you most admire?

BL: Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis.

AAJ: Best album you ever heard in any kind of music?

BL: Keith Jarrett's album Tribute (ECM, 1990).

AAJ: Perfect rhythm section besides your trio?

BL: Do they have to be alive?

AAJ: No.

BL: Billy Higgins and Scott LaFaro or Charlie Haden. That would be interesting.

AAJ: The best show you have ever played?

BL: Last night, because the music keeps developing.

AAJ: What is jazz?

BL: You mean what should it be?

AAJ: No what it is.

BL: It is a very big animal that changes constantly. I think with the internet it is changing because it is easier to get your name out as a new artist. You can promote yourself totally differently...I think that traditional players will have a harder time accessing younger audiences.

AAJ: When does it stop being jazz?

BL: When one stops improvising. People are very tired of a certain way of playing jazz. Very few people actually play standards anymore. I think that the general feeling in NY is very exciting right now because a lot of people are playing new things.

AAJ: Will you always be a jazz musician?

BL: Yes, I don't fit in any other category, by process of elimination.

AAJ: What is the place you want to play most in your life?

BL: Village Vanguard or Carnegie Hall... They are equally hard to get into. At the Vanguard there is a feeling of history—Coltrane and Bill Evans. Here is a funny story: I called Loraine at the Vanguard when I was 22 and told her that I wanted to play there. She said, You can only play here if you have played here before.

Selected Discography

Benny Lackner Trio, Sign of the Times (Nagel Heyer, 2006)
Benny Lackner Trio, Not the Same (Nagel Heyer, 2004)
Maroon, Who the Sky Betrays (Head Fulla Brains, 2003)
Floan, Movement Towards Awake (Big of Seed, 2003)
Adam Lane, Hollywood Wedding (Cadence, 1999)

Photo Credits:
Portrait and center trio photo courtesy of Benny Lackner
Bottom trio photo: Hot Club de Portugal

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Download jazz mp3 “Dresden Blues” by Benny Lackner Trio