Benny Lackner: Evolving the Piano Trio Tradition

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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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.


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