Benjamin Lackner’s label debut, Last Decade, is a concentrated investigation into patient quartet interplay, as the pianist leads an exceptional cast of instrumentalists with a keen sense of restraint. There’s a striking lyrical quality to Benjamin’s compositions, opening up many possibilities for his colleagues – trumpeter Mathis Eick, drummer Manu Katché and bassist Jérôme Regard – to inject the music with their own character. Subtle grooves and flowing solos emerge between the four of them.
The great chemistry between Lackner and Regard can be traced back to 2006, when Regard first joined Lackner’s trio. Various incarnations of the trio produced six albums between 2004 and 2019 – Regard appears on half of them. Now having to expand his compositional framework from trio to quartet, Lackner recognizes new opportunities and finds freedom in having a melodic partner on horn.
“We decided early on that this would be an acoustic record, which made it easier for me to focus on a direction and allowed me to rediscover the piano more intimately,” explains Lackner. “I worked on finding grooves that allowed me to conceptualize melodies in a more open way. With a horn player in the band, I had to come up with different harmony parts on piano than what I’m used to, and think of the trumpet as the leading voice, which is new territory for me, too, since I tend to play mostly in solo or trio settings. It was an inspiring change to write with Mathias in mind because his phrasing fits perfectly to the way I hear melodic material.”
Between them, Katché and Eick have appeared on over twenty albums for the label with numerous leader-dates each. Mathias was also part of Playground (2007), Manu Katché’s second album for ECM. Their contributions to this quartet are highly distinctive – Katché’s drum patterns exude both natural spaciousness and particular assertiveness, while Eick’s breezy trumpet tone transcends the textures. Lackner: “In the studio, my colleagues were very open minded and helpful in the arrangement process of the music and we ended up making several changes that gave my compositions exactly the final touch they needed. Manu spontaneously added unique rhythmic accents and the session had an overall feeling of freshness because it was all new to all of us.”
This freshness is apparent from the start, as is Benjamin’s ability to compose frameworks within which his sidemen’s exceptional abilities can unfold completely. “Where Do We Go From Here” opens the proceedings with a rubato that has Katché exploring the cymbals before switching to a more robust rhythmic foundation for “Circular Confidence,” a song that finds piano and trumpet sharing the melodic themes in equal parts.
Throughout, Regard serves as both harmonic partner and grounding force, navigating the entirety of the double bass fingerboard with elasticity and elegance, often interlocking with Katché’s different emphases in the process. The programme is made up of exclusively Lackner originals, except for “Émile,” named after Regard’s son. The bassist improvised the music on the spot in the studio, capturing pristine acoustics. On “Camino Cielo,” named after the mountain range in California where Lackner’s ancestors emigrated to from Germany in the 1930s, the bass blends in with the band in an especially smooth way, so that the remarkable interplay of the group becomes the centre of attention, not the solos. Which is true for most of the music on the album.
On “Hung Up On That Ghost,” the title track, “Remember This” or “Open Minds Lost” it’s never just about the individual but about the sum of the parts. In this case, the sum of four musicians improvising over thoroughly wrought designs with precision, mindfulness for each other and the producer’s guidance, which, as Lackner stresses, “helped shape the improvisations in a way I have never experienced before.”
Closer “My People,” originally intended as a strict 11/4-time, was collectively refashioned into a loose rubato head with a jam-friendly middle-section in the studio and summarizes many of the idioms introduced previously. It reinforces the idea that Last Decade builds on the strengths of each member of the quartet, as they work together to create a greater whole.
The album was recorded at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-Les-Fontaines, in September 2021, and produced by Manfred Eicher.