Marco Benevento's Brooklyn Memoirs

By: Martin Halo

Marco Benevento
The call box at Marco Benevento's NYC apartment squawks to life. Behind an apartment door stands the new fangled jazz pianist and all-around musical mischief-maker. He's catching a last bit of downtime before heading to the West Coast for an Oakland residency that began this week. His second solo effort, Me Not Me (Royal Potato Family Records) was released on February 3 (see JamBase's recent review here).

We had met once before on a lounge couch over a bright interview light and chilled Maker's Mark while he was performing with his Trio - a fall lineup that included former JFJO bassist Reed Mathis and Phish skin wrangler Jon Fishman. Benevento then, as now, was very much in control. His mannerisms and personality flow like a piece of his music, unveiling pieces of the story without words.

He leads the way down a short, winding flight of stairs into a shallow basement space. There a steel kettle of water is shuttering on an open stove - almost at a boil. "Would you like a slice of banana bread?" he asks as two thick clay plates are placed on a round wooden table. "It's homemade, baked last night," he says, and it's moist to the touch. The space was warm, accented with dark red walls and a white ceiling. A bookshelf with an open encyclopedia of Dylan's lyrics on it leads into a sea of cramped instrumentation. A black piano is nestled against a wall of knobs, devices, and electronic equipment. Benevento's inner sanctum is filled with smoke rising from sticks of incense placed throughout the lower floor of the bi-level apartment.

"I have no shows scheduled for April yet. Did you know bands only have to tour on average three months out of the year to survive? As an artist you sometimes get these worrisome sensations about not having enough gigs lined up from time to time. I remember when Russo and I were playing 200 shows a year. Times are just different now," says Benevento. "I swear, without fail, I get these phone calls from various artists asking if I want to fly out for collaborations," he laughs. I really love those."

Benevento has earned a firm reputation within the NYC jazz community, while simultaneously rising to jam recognition with the beloved Benevento/Russo Duo. He made Zeppelin heads convulse with the reverberations of Bustle In Your Hedgerow before flooring us with the intimacy of his solo debut, Invisible Baby. However, at this very moment the only thing banging around his brain is getting a grasp on the morning. Benevento sits barefoot, with a thin navy blue shirt, jeans, and a friendly smile splattered across his face, and asks, "So, what's on your mind this morning?"

Harlem - The Call from the Bullpen

Marco Benevento by Jay Blakesberg
The Harlem Renaissance yielded the epicenter of African-American culture in New York City during the latter part of the 1920s. It was a revitalization of black culture in the wake of the great Southern exodus to Northern cities for industrial work after the abolition of slavery. In the midst of a heightened awareness in literature, art and dance stood a purely American expression: Jazz.

History does not set a period on where this cultural boom subsided, but in a window of time post-1930, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Chick Webb, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were all seduced by Harlem's splendor. It was a similar historical window where '50s Beatnik culture latched onto the writings of Louis Armstrong's marijuana dealer, Mezz Mezzrow, who published Really the Blues, a book based on the jazz scene surrounding Al Capone's Chicago. It was within this paradigm that the true bleeding heart of jazz flourished in the East, and 50 years later the ideology of Harlem's Renaissance remains firmly intact.

"Back when I was studying at Berklee, a professor said to me, 'Boston is like the bullpen, everybody is preparing for New York,'" says Benevento. "As far as a student who wants to play clubs and go to jam sessions, it's a standard. It was such a natural progression coming back to New York from Berklee."

Returning to the city in 2000, Benevento, for all practical purposes, marinated in the juices of New York clubs. Seasoned in the vibe of a rich history, they are the kind of rooms that rub against your skin with biting character.

"When I first moved back to NYC, I spent a lot of time playing standards at Cleopatra's Needle," he says, referring to the 92nd Street deco lounge named after a section of Central Park. "Then there was Smoke [located on Broadway at 106th] and this organ place in Harlem called Showman's." Benevento pauses for a second in marvel. "It was such a classic soul place where I would do straight up Hammond gigs with saxophone and a drummer. We played nothing but standards."

In addition to working out his musical conversation in lounge rooms, Benevento was also studying under the guidance of Berklee Professor and Carnegie alum Joanne Brackeen.

"It was weird the way music crept into my life," he offers. "I was talking to Bobby Previte, and he asked me if I ever turned off all the lights in my room as a kid - with one light kept on myself - pretending beyond the glow there were 50,000 people. [I said], 'Nope, it was never like that, Bobby.'"

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