New York-based pianist Benny Lackner came to my attention with the innovative jazz/pop outing Migratory (HeadFullaBrains, 2002) by Maroon, the group he co-leads with vocalist Hillary Maroon. That disc didn't make the splash it deserved, but in the music we loosely define as jazz, big splashes are fairly rare.
Fast forward a few yearspast another even more innovative Maroon outing, Who the Sky Betrays (HeadFullaBrains, 2003), and two earlier Lackner trios discs, and we find that Benny Lackner has tuned his piano trio vision into a sharp focus on Sign of the Times.
Lackner can be tagged a young lionas of this writing, he is not yet thirty years oldbut Sign of the Times proves itself a wonderfully realized work of art, every tune a highlight, and with it Lackner steps into the ranks of fully developed jazz artists. The set has a decidedly modern feel, starting out with the Prince-penned title tune and including Björk's "Isobel." It makes a couple of nods to the tradition on Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" and the closer, Gershwin's "How About You," which starts out reverent before the trio gives it a stretch. Also included are four forward-looking Lackner originals and one more tune he co-wrote with bassist Derek Nievergelt and drummer Robert Perkins.
Can we lump Lackner into the "Brad Mehldau school" of young pianists? It seems like a large club, if you listen to the critics, one that includes just about anyone with a melodic, lyrical approach. But Lackner, Nievergelt and Perkins have developed their own voice on a set that mixes the old and new nicely, with a subtle spicing of the sound in spots with various electric keyboards.
I said "every tune a highlight," but I'll pick a favorite anyway: "Rambo Sex Party." The title might suggest slash and burn carnal carnage, but the tune has a genuine tenderness, insistent yet gentle, as if our man Rambo has a softer side.