ON the Beat | Once-Local Jazz Man Makes Good and Global, and Lyrical

Locally Grown Jazz Pianist Benjamin Lackner Goes Big and Lyrical with ECM Debut

Benjamin Lackner | Credit: Christoph Heidrich, ECM Records

It is not every day that a Santa Barbara–bred musician releases an album on the mighty and venerable ECM Records label. Come to think of it, has there been any such day? As of this month, Santa Barbara jazz record keepers — and record seekers — have just cause for pride and celebration, with the release of Benjamin Lackner’s luminous ECM debut, Last Decade.

Composed of mostly Lackner originals, the album is a thing of thoughtful and often dusky beauty, poetically realized by the pianist/composer along with his regular bass player Jérôme Regard and two very special guests with ECM ties — the melodically inspired Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick, the album’s melodic foil, and veteran drummer Manu Katché, the right and supple drummer for the task. The music burns mostly on a low, warming flame, in a mode well-suited to the ECM aesthetic and the acute vision of the label’s mythic founder/producer Manfred Eicher.

It’s true that Montecito’s own jazz legend Charles Lloyd called ECM his label home for many years, but he is a latter-day emigrant to the 805. The ECM/Santa Barbara connection also extends to the long-standing presence of heroic local impresario Stephen Cloud, for decades the manager of ECM’s brightest roster light, Keith Jarrett.

Benjamin, whom most of us have known as Benny, was born into the culturally rich Lackner family in Berlin, spent many formative years in Santa Barbara, and is now again an entrenched Berliner. In his youth, he studied with ageless Santa Barbara wunderkind Dick Dunlap and then with Brad Mehldau at CalArts before heading east to New York, and farther east back to Germany over the last few decades.

From left: Mathias Eick, Benjamin Lackner, Manu Katché, and Jérôme Regard | Credit: Sam Harfouch, ECM Records

Speaking of Last Decade, many jazz musicians aspire to find a home at ECM, but few are called. Lackner, who has a handful of other albums on smaller labels, got the fateful call from Eicher a few years ago. After various delays, the recording sessions went down in September 2021 at Studios La Buissonne in Pernes-les-Fontaines, France. Eicher was very much in the house and in producer mode, and the resulting album benefits from the sonic radiance and sense of space and being in the moment — hallmark qualities for which ECM is renowned.

From the opening probing piano-trumpet melody of “Where Do We Go From Here?” to the final suspended chord of the album-closer “My People,” Lackner shows a sensitive touch and an admirable restraint in his playing. He stretches out into flashes of serpentine fire at the right, ripe moments of a solo, as he does on the pensive 6/8 title track, “Last Decade.” He also lends Eick ample expressive space on the record; the pair seem to have a palpable empathetic connection, which one hopes will continue in the future.

In other Santa Barbara–related news, Lackner’s peaceable ode to the hometown, “Camino Cielo,” is from a decidedly different mood and mode from the album Camino Cielo Echo, by another Santa Barbara–raised jazz musician of global note, the superb and exploratory drummer Tom Rainey. His 2012 album, on the Swiss Intakt label, is full of sometimes edgier pleasures, in cahoots with Rainey’s frequent allies, guitarist Mary Halvorson and German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock (also Rainey’s wife). Rainey’s pensively abstract tribute to Hendry’s Beach — wittily named “Arroyo Burrow” — may be one of the most artful odes to a Santa Barbara beach in the known world.

Despite their party central stereotype, beaches can also be fertile soil for introspection. Jazz musicians of global renown and local roots, such as Lackner and Rainey, have made that point and paid echoing homage to the special qualities of Santa Barbara, in musical terms. 

Congratulations and appreciation are in order.

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Aeolus Quartet at Santa Barbara Museum of Art | Photo: Josef Woodard

A Chamber Worth Cherishing

One of the finest rooms for chamber music in town lurks quietly on the ground floor of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. SBMA’s intimate auditorium has hosted chamber music for several years now, and for some, it’s a secret treasure, growing less and less secret by the season.

Last Monday, the series happily relaunched after its pandemic hiatus with a return of the young and gifted Aeolus Quartet. Although the second half’s read of Dvořák’s “American” quartet struck a popular chord, the real charm and mind-trip of the program came earlier, with a delectable take on Beethoven’s quirky “early period” Quartet in B-flat, Opus 18, No. 6, followed by go-to contemporary composer Caroline Shaw’s Blueprint. Shaw’s piece freely quotes and disassociates bits of the Beethoven piece, putting it through her deconstructionist — but clearly affectionate — filter. A fine cerebral time was had on a Monday night. Next up: the Parker Quartet, on Monday, November 21.


Thursday, October 27, is a Big Night for good music from different corners — genre-wise and GPS-wise. UCSB’s Campbell Hall is the landing spot for the Grammy-winning Mexican singer Carla Morrison, part of the Arts & Lectures concert series, while out at Music Academy, Hahn Hall will be the scene of acclaimed and contemporary-minded pianist (and Music Academy faculty member) Conor Hanick’s special performance of the legendary Hans Otte masterpiece The Book of Sounds — a highlight of June’s Ojai Music Festival.

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