By: Josh Potter
In 2001, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau recorded Largo, an album that applied the classic piano-trio template to a diverse range of material, including tunes by The Beatles and Radiohead. Like any deviation from tradition in the straight-ahead jazz world, the album was hugely controversial. Mehldau's project was dismissed as a trivial foray into shallow pop by some while others championed the album as a return to innovation in an increasingly nostalgic genre. One musician who fell into the latter camp was Marco Benevento.
Having only recently moved to NYC, Benevento took a lesson with Mehldau one day while the album was being mixed. Pounding through variations of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," the lesson highlighted the freedom of simplicity. Six years later, Benevento built his own piano trio, using Largo drummer Matt Chamberlain as his rhythmic anchor and enlisting the support of visionary bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Tea Leaf Green). Invisible Baby (arriving on Hyena Records on February 12) features all original music, and rides the momentum of last August's Live at Tonic. This is Benevento's best work to date and one of the most important jazz releases since Largo.
Like Duke Ellington, Benevento's tunes hearken back to a time when piano music was spare and melodic. His themes leave the listener searching for the artist who originated the tune before realizing that these are, in fact, his brainchildren. If "You Must Be a Lion" were a radio hit, Top 40 artists would be clambering to remake it already. The goes for "Ruby," a tune formerly titled "The Arrival of Greatness," that came to Benevento in a dream before the birth of his daughter, who gives the song it's new title. It's a lazy theme, sing-songy in the manner of Largo, that emerges from a tangle of circuit-bent madness.
By now a standard part of his repertoire, "Record Book" may best exemplify Marco's understated songwriting. A gentle intro, reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius' "Continuum," gives way to a jaunty conversation. Like Pastorius, Mathis' playing is precise as ever, but unlike the hotheaded fusion king, Mathis' lines are uncharacteristically simple. Forgoing his usual effects rig and penchant for the upper register, his playing is perfectly supportive. This is a testament to his musicianship, not a misuse of his talents. The exception is "Atari," where a heavy, dub-worthy feel ripples through the percolating post-rock anthem, handily dispensing of bands like Battles and Ratatat, while allowing Chamberlain to shred the song's substrata in the fashion of The Bad Plus' David King.
Just as Chamberlain's drumming gave life to so many of the arrangements on Largo, so too does it propel Invisible Baby. An unsung hero in many successful projects (Critters Buggin', Tori Amos, Pearl Jam's Ten), his diverse experience manifests in his unmistakable, signature style. His playing on "If You Keep On Asking Me" makes the tune teeter like a wind-up robot, struggling to stay locomotive.
However, none of this diminishes the contributions of The Slip's Andrew Barr here. Barr plays on three tracks, one of which would be the single, if the album had one. Originally penned as a joke, "The Real Morning Party" is a pop tune with a nuclear half-life. When the album draws to a close, this will be the melody stuck in your head for the rest of the week. Through all the gleeful kitsch, it is, in the end, a vehicle for Barr's drumming. Using brake pads and a silver salad bowl, the gimmick is taken so far that it becomes one of the album's strongest tracks.
Toss in Benevento's banjo debut on the opener "Bus Ride," and the homage to Miranda July's short film "Are You The Favorite Person of Anybody?" as the closer, and the album is as varied as it is singular. Brief and spare, yet powerful and moving, there is nothing but joy at the heart of Invisible Baby, which is nothing short of an instant classic.
JamBase | New York City
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