Marco Benevento: Music Is Still Secret

By: Ron Hart

Marco by Michael Benevento
Few musicians have defined the state of piano jazz in the 21st century quite like Marco Benevento. Whether alongside longtime partner drummer Joe Russo as the Benevento/Russo Duo, as the leader of his own trio with bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Andrew Barr or playing in such groups as Garage A Trois or, most recently, as the new member of The Slip spinoff Surprise Me Mr. Davis, this 32-year-old native of North Jersey enjoys an ample playing field by which to manipulate is uncanny arsenal of analog and digital keyboards.

Between The Needles and Nightfall is Benevento's third solo album in three years, and stands tall as the finest work he has created under his own name to date. Recorded at Trout Recording in the artist's adopted home of Brooklyn, NY, Between The Needles was helmed by an ad-hoc crew of prominent studio wizards - Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Swans, Ramones, Luna), Mell Dettmer (Sunn O))), Eyvind Kang), Jesse Lauter (Low Anthem, Elvis Perkins) and Vid Cousins (Amon Tobin, Kid Koala) - each of whom helped Benevento to successfully envision his fusion of electro-enhanced major-chord jazz for baby grand piano treated by a cornucopia of guitar pick-ups, effects pedals and found toys.

Currently Benevento is in the midst of a whirlwind summer tour that includes dates with Surprise Me Mr. Davis in the Pacific Northwest, a pair of NY area gigs with Garage A Trois (as well as an appearance at this year's Outside Lands Festival), and two exciting shows for the Celebrate Brooklyn! Concert Series in Prospect Park, including playing a key role in the performance of Miles Davis' 1969 voodoo classic Bitches Brew alongside such city jazz greats as James Blood Ulmer, DJ Logic, Lonnie Plaxico, Cindy Blackman and the Mike Stern Band in late June and an August date that finds his trio performing a live score to Roger Corman's 1960 horror classic The House of Usher. However, Mr. B was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk with JamBase about the making of Between The Needles and Nightfall, joining Surprise Me, covering Amy Winehouse, and skateboarding to Men At Work.

JamBase: How does it feel to be one-fifth of a traditional rock band like Surprise Me Mr. Davis as opposed to being the leader of your own group like your trio?

Marco Benevento: It's great. I love playing the role of being just the keyboardist in a band, trying to come up with just cool, simple parts for a song. Not having to be the leader definitely is a pretty nice relief.

JamBase: How democratic is SMMD in terms of creating the music?

Marco Benevento: Everyone pitches in and has their voices heard, but primarily Nathan [Moore] and Brad [Barr] do most of the writing.

How long have you known the guys in The Slip?

Man, I've known those guys and jammed with them since '95.

Do you have a favorite memory of jamming with the Barrs prior to joining Surprise Me Mr. Davis?

One time we were out on tour and we got stuck in a snowstorm in Flagstaff, Arizona. We got snowed in at our friend Brooke's place and we just played music in this A-frame house until the sun came up. That was in February or March of 2000. It was really fun.

Between The Needles and Nightfall is a very big-sounding record, with a lot of major chords and huge pop melodies, particularly for the baby grand piano. What inspired you to go in this direction?

Benevento by Mike DiDonna
I think just years of figuring it out; years of playing and touring and finally opening up the bottle that's been shaken up. I've always wanted to play with a bass player and a drummer, and I always wanted to sit behind the piano and try to do more piano stuff. Over the last three years and over the last three records, I've been getting a lot better at ProTools, working in the studio in my house, and composing, of course. It all cumulated to this point of a healthy blend of rock and jazz and big beats and quieter songs. Even Reed Mathis, the bass player, said that this was his favorite trio record that we've made.

What albums were you listening to at the time of recording Between The Needles and Nightfall?

I was listening to this record called Flow Motion by the group Can. That record I was really digging a lot. That record has a lot of songs that are built from loops. I was also listening to a lot of relentless, groove-oriented songs where it starts and you immediately like it and it has a nice tempo and you're bouncing with it and barely noticing what's going by. That was what I felt I did on a couple of the tracks on this new album. I just got into this [mindset of] "let the music play" and don't worry about a studio cut or worry about making it sound tight, just play it. There were a lot of free-for-alls on this record. There are a lot of newer bands like Grizzly Bear that I've been digging lately. I'm still very much tried and true with The Beatles as well. You always notice something new with The Beatles every year it seems. I'm a big fan of The Black Keys; I like Dan Auerbach, the guitarist, a lot. And the guys and me, we've been listening to a lot of Men At Work lately as well. I grew up in that timeframe. I was born in 1977, so I did a lot of skateboarding and listening to Men At Work on my Walkman while I skated. And Herbie Hancock as well; "Rockit" [with] that Linn drum sound always did it for me. I've also been listening to more electronic bands lately as well, like this band called Chromeo. They're pretty cool. I like LCD Soundsystem a bit. Squarepusher blows me away, but that's sort of a given I guess. He's a big name around everybody. But I could still afford to be turned onto more electronic music, though.

Following up on your 2009 LP of covers, Me Not Me, you chose to take on only one interpretation of someone else's work for Between The Needles and Nightfall. What made you go with Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good"?

I just love the tune, man; I love the soul of it. I'm a big fan of a lot of the Motown stuff and Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett and Little Richard, and I feel like the song stems from that trajectory. Amy's got a great voice. I really like her voice a lot, and it lends itself to the piano really fantastically. It's really easy to play; it almost sounds like a Duke Ellington/Medeski, Martin and Wood kind of hybrid. Playing it live is a real treat, too. People really get into it.

Of all the covers you have done over the years, which one was the most difficult one to get right?

Well, you know, they all make me work to get it right - from the simplest ones to the hardest ones. But I'd say one of the more involved covers that we play is "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" by Leonard Cohen. There's a lot of changes and there's a lot of chords in it. And we play it in more of a jazz type feel where I improvise over the changes and stuff. That's the one that is still hard to this day even though we've been playing it for like ten years.

How did you come up with the idea of rigging your baby grand with guitar pickups?

Benevento by Rob Chapman
I just had one in my house from a tour, and they sorta sucked for guitars so we never used them onstage. I had one lying around and was planning for a piano trio tour and thinking, "Oh good, I could just fly and play pianos and that's it." And I thought about how all these demos that I had been making had reverb and effects on the piano and was wondering how I was going to do that for the stage. So, I stuck that guitar pickup on the inside of the piano and ran it into the amp that I have and it was that simple. Then I was like, "Okay, I can put distortion pedals and all these things in between before it gets to the amp." For the last three years I've been trying to dial that in. It's a hard thing to do. It's an acoustic instrument and it's pretty wild with loud drums right next to it. But at the same time, it's a really attractive thing. What's really nice is running the piano through tremolo, especially on this amp that I have. It's this really nice old amp that has a tremolo on it that's like buttah.

You are going to be scoring a screening of House of Usher at the Prospect Park bandshell in Brooklyn later this summer. How are you going to go about it?

I'm going to go wherever the film takes me. I'm also going to see if there are any original songs that I've already written that could work in there and maybe even use Between The Needles and Nightfall as a soundtrack to the movie if I could. It would be pretty fun to try to dial some of that stuff into it. I've also been writing new music for it and setting up sound effects and whatnot.

You just performed Bitches Brew with that phenomenal supergroup in Prospect Park recently. Did you play the role of Joe Zawinul or Chick Corea?

I actually tried to do both. There was only one keyboardist so I had to make it sound like two or three. Nevertheless, to be amongst those incredible musicians was a true honor.

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[Published on: 6/29/10]

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