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Benedikt Jahnel: Equilibrium

John Kelman By

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He may be better known internationally to ECM fans for his participation in the pan-cultural Cyminology, but German pianist Benedikt Jahnel has been devoting just as much attention to his multinational trio featuring Spanish bassist Antonio Miguel and American drummer Owen Howard. Releasing the trio's debut in 2008 on Viennese guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel's Material Records imprint, Jahnel's work with Max.Bab has rendered superficial comparisons to Esbjorn Svensson, but if the world is looking for someone to pick up the mantle left by the late Swedish pianist, it'll have to keep on looking. Beyond being relatively young and leading a piano trio with a strong penchant for lyricism, there's little else with which to compare Jahnel's trio and e.s.t.

A truth already apparent on Modular Concepts (Material, 2008), but even clearer with Equilibrium, the trio's long overdue follow-up and ECM debut. If anything, there are some similarities in Jahnel's approach to fellow label mate, pianist Nik Bärtsch and Ronin, most recently heard on Live (ECM, 2012). But if Bärtsch and Jahnel share a certain rigor when it comes to rhythmic constructs and, more importantly, rhythmic placement, Jahnel is more intrinsically driven by song form—even, as is the case with the opening "Gently Understood," if he takes a long time getting there. Through the first three of its five minutes, Jahnel's trio collectively explores a modal, pedal toned vamp, building to an extemporaneous climax only to fade to a near-whisper and the introduction of the pianist's chordal theme—albeit one where Howard both holds down the form and explores further, a tasteful meshing of delicate cymbals and reverb-drenched, rim shot-driven drums.

What gives Jahnel's trio some of its personality is the way that it plays with conventional roles. Howard—whose 20-year career has included collaborations with everyone from saxophonist Chris Potter to guitarist Ben Monder—is, himself, a deeply melodic player; one who can, at times, leave more rhythmic concerns to Jahnel. In the opening minutes of Equilibrium's longest track, "Moorland & Hill Land," Jahnel's pulsating exploration of the lower register of his piano almost blends into a single voice with Miguel's resonant arco. Ultimately unfolding into a spare, Erik Satie-like passage, Jahnel gradually shifts to an arpeggio-driven piano a cappella that finally, eight minutes in, leads to a full trio treatment. Filled with unrelenting forward motion, Jahnel shifts that very propulsion between left and right hands, while Miguel's spare anchor supports Howard's strong thematic foil for Jahnel.

If Jahnel's trio often operates in keyboardist Joe Zawinul's long-held "nobody solos/everybody solos" ethos, that doesn't mean there aren't shining moments for its members. The gently majestic "Sacred Silence" is defined largely by Miguel, and the bassist's strong allegiance to motivic development also features near the end of "Moorland," while Howard is the clear melodist alongside Jahnel in the latter half of "Augmented." It's all about embedding the piano trio tradition into a new context where things aren't always as they seem. With Equilibrium, Jahnel has carved his own evocative space on a label that may seem loaded down with piano trios, but for whom, in the case of Jahnel, there's clearly room for one more.

Track Listing: Gently Understood; Sacred Silence; Moorland & Hill Land; Wrangel; Augmented; Hidden Beauty; Equilibrium.

Personnel: Benedikt Jahnel: piano; Antonio Miguel: double bass; Owen Howard: drums.

Title: Equilibrium | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ECM Records

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