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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...

AAJ: When do you expect to go from the clubs to the auditoriums and theaters? What do you think is missing?

BL: I feel like I am doing all the ground work to do that. Everyplace we go, we meet a promoter for a festival. It seems like people are starting to know our name as well and we are slowly creating a buzz... For the festivals we really need a promoter.

AAJ: Are you in a hurry to get there?

BL: Oh yeah, I am dying.

AAJ: What can you bring as an artist to a jazz festival?

BL: I think that we represent the new generation of jazz musicians from NYC that are doing new things. We definitely do not play the tradition as it is [though I respect everyone who does that]. That's how my playing has developed from the beginning and it is not finished yet. I am just starting on the right path ...

AAJ: Where is your starting point—Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau?

BL: I would say Bill Evans. I mean, he is a huge influence of mine but I also love the Oscar Peterson Trio. You can't really hear that in my music but the energy of that trio is what inspired me back when I was thirteen. Keith Jarrett's Trio is what I was obsessed with for most of my life. Now you have The Bad Plus, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper and other pianists like Craig Taborn and Ed Simon. Those are all people that are doing great things.

AAJ: Why did you choose the trio format?

BL: I don't hear my music with horns right now. It's selfish; I feel that there is more room for all of us. What's interesting is that when we started the first tour, after all the hard work of setting it up I didn't realize how much space there is to fill with such a small ensemble—I am now growing into that much better. Back then I didn't think about it at all until we were on stage in front of packed room. Now I can walk on stage and play an intro. It took some time to get used to the freedom of having that room.

AAJ: Do you expect to be using more or less electronics in future albums?

BL: The first album is much more electronic, but I have to admit that I subconsciously did that because the playing wasn't as developed. Now the electronics are more in the background. For the third record I want to get the best sound possible, maybe rent a B3 [organ] and good vintage gear so that audiophiles will respect us as well. It is important to have the best sonic product possible. I never want to get to the point where the electronic element takes over, but who knows when I am forty I might have a sextet where we all play laptops only [laughs].

AAJ: What about your compositions? How does the music come to you?

BL: The best ones come without thinking about them at all. I just wake up in the middle of the night and have all the different parts in my head. The ones that I struggle with I end up hating anyway because they are too cerebral. Now I just don't even try, because when I do it is very frustrating. What helps is that when I have an idea, such as the song "Sister Love, Rob [Perkins] and Derek [Nievergelt] help me put it together. We wrote that one in the same room which is very rare for me. It is not often to have three people writing together—you have to be sensitive to everyone's feelings.

AAJ: You have also built a strong relationship with this lineup for the European tour, with Derek Nievergelt and John B. Arnold...

BL: Yeah, I have known John for five days...

AAJ: But you interact so well...

BL: Yeah, he's amazing. He is a wonderful player and learned all the music in one day. He actually is a specialist for the drum 'n' bass stuff and is pushing us in that direction and I gladly accept that. Rob is great in his own way because he comes up with very specific drum parts for every song like in a rock band. But that comes with time and John is already doing that in five days...

AAJ: Let's talk about your origins in jazz. You were born in Berlin but you never studied music there.

BL: Oh, yes, I did. My father dragged me to a music store with twenty adults taking music classes when I was eight. My father is a guitarist and singer, and being a hippie, his main guy was Bob Dylan and folk music and blues. So I was only interested in learning blues and boogie-woogie and completely rejected classical music. In Germany in the eighties it was hard to find a teacher that was willing to do that, but I found a few.

Benny Lackner
Benny Lackner Trio: Lackner (p), Derek Niervegelt (b), Robert Perkins (d)

When I turned thirteen we moved to the U.S. where my uncle [drummer Tom Lackner] took me to jam sessions and I started studying with Dick Dunlap and Theo Saunders. We transcribed Jarrett and Peterson and I played some Brubeck. At eighteen, after playing at the Montreux and Monterey Jazz festivals with a big band under the direction of Isaac Jenkins, I went to CalArts where I studied with David Roitstein, Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau. To this day I study with Martin Soderberg who is a world class classical pianist in NYC and saved me from tendonitis in '98. The main thing I walked away with from Mehldau was that I needed to learn classical music if I wanted to have control of the instrument. Now I play some Chopin Etudes and Bach.

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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