Marco Benevento’s Brooklyn Memoirs

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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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It is all about honesty for me and playing what I want to play. When you are performing for a lot of people and everybody is together with you at a concert it is a very exciting feeling. I like to use that energy and use the crowd as my muse. I want to reach out and say, ‘Yes, let’s all do this together.’ All I really intended to do was to have fun, all while making it interesting and touching for my audience.

Marco Benevento

 
Photo by: Kevin Calabro

“It is all about honesty for me,” he says, “and playing what I want to play. When you are performing for a lot of people and everybody is together with you at a concert it is a very exciting feeling. I like to use that energy and use the crowd as my muse. I want to reach out and say, ‘Yes, let’s all do this together.’ All I really intended to do was to have fun, all while making it interesting and touching for my audience.”

Marco Benevento
“The purpose is to not be myself,” he continues. “I want to forget that I am even there. I want to let music just flow. Let it all happen and make something that people can connect with. We can then come back to reality and everybody can bid farewell.”

Harlem yielded many temptations. “My dad calls it over indulging yourself,” he laughs. “I think about all of these jam sessions in Harlem where people would take their share of choruses, play another solo.”

The success, at least in Marco Benevento’s solo material, is his ability to approach the listener with threads of accessible melody, steady on the limb that shall bend under the weight.

“Maybe some people might think that my music is self-indulgent but every now and then I get, ‘That was a very nice solo,'” he says in a gentleman’s voice. “You notice that aspect so much more with jazz because the rock world isn’t based on improvisation. That very battle existed at Berklee, as well. The dropout rate for freshmen is close to 70-percent. They are kids who are big fishes in a small pond and/or the shredders who have no interest in learning how to improvise. I just thought somebody like John Coltrane was an amazing musician.”

The Inspiration

Benevento laps the apartment space several times before finally settling in front of a keyboard stacked along the sidewall. A small, red digital knob-laden tone converter is sprawled out over the right side of the ivory. Benevento places his hands on the open keys while still standing.

Marco Benevento by Chad Smith
“The beauty about an instrumental song is that everybody has their own relationship with it,” he says. “Everybody has their own story.”

With the audio pickup off, the sound of rhythmic tapping bounces off the face of the keys and permeates the conversation. Benevento is having his way at a few unconscious licks while his eyes and speech are focused on the inner workings of his compositions.

“I think it depends on my mood,” he says reflectively. “Take the song ‘Bus Ride’ for example. The reason why I called it that was because it was written on a tour bus with Trey [Anastasio], Mike [Gordon] and Joe [Russo]. Trey came over with his guitar, sat down and improvised a part on his guitar. The loop of the Mellotron and banjo reminds me of the wheels of the bus spinning. When you connect the mood and place, it evokes a feeling.”

He picks up a small, infant-like electronic kazoo. With his hands tucked around its back and his thumbs producing the tones, Benevento crudely spits the melody barrage of “Bus Ride” off Invisible Baby.

“I have my own personal thing with it,” he says while staring down at his hands. “What is cool and intriguing to me is how other people have their own little thing with it. A cut like ‘Real Morning Party’ I can only imagine thinking about the one thing!”

Benevento turns around and immediately sits at the stool cradled against his full, organically resonating piano.

Marco Benevento by Aaron Williams
“The story without words, or the instrumental song, is left to the interpretation of the listener. I want you to connect to how I am feeling right now,” he says as his hands touch the keys. “If I am feeling mellow I could play something minor,” accentuated by a phrase of right-handed emotions that resonate in a sustained B-minor.

“This is such an amazing instrument to play. People don’t seem to utilize its brilliance the way they used to. I am always an activist for piano rights,” Benevento says. “It is amazing to think how much the music industry has changed from the times of the people we worshipped. I remember when Led Zeppelin was nothing more than a myth to kids growing up.”

“The more we are connected, the more musicians holding this untouchable reach will dissipate because of how quickly we get information,” he continues. “There is no waiting in line for records, and no liner notes to grasp onto. There is no suspense. I often wonder how in this day and age an artist such as Neil Young remains part of mythology.”

The myth associated with Marco Benevento’s own musical lineage has to do directly with his fans musing in the dark about where he is going to pop up next.

“Everybody wants to know where my concentration is amongst the projects,” he says. “I was hanging out with [drummer] Matt Chamberlain [Critters Buggin] and he inadvertently said some words of wisdom. He said, for him, everything was a side project. By saying that everything is a side project I took it as you are the most important person in your life. It doesn’t make any sense to try and understand the dynamics of how a musician spreads his time over projects. What am I going to do, get into a van with Reed [Mathis] and say, ‘This is my side project?’ The thing you have to understand is that music is unchained. It is like being on the road. You can do whatever you want. While driving you could jerk the wheel hard and flip the van into a ditch or you could pull off into that weird little roadside outhouse where they are selling alien pins. Musically, it is the same feeling as being on the road. There is so much you learn while traveling. Driving across the country is an inspiring experience, even without the music. On the road, just like Jack Kerouac.”

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The purpose is to not be myself. I want to forget that I am even there. I want to let music just flow. Let it all happen and make something that people can connect with. We can then come back to reality and everybody can bid farewell.

Marco Benevento

 
Photo by: Greg Aiello

“I just did a little ten-date run with my Trio and five of those dates were with Jon Fishman, Reed Mathis and Nathan Moore. I wish I was rolling tape while we were driving because we got into really interesting conversations along the way,” Benevento adds. “Fishman is an encyclopedia. He is a really interesting dude and a great drummer. We all just talked. It is cool to hear what people are thinking. It is like being interviewed; we are here to get into each other’s heads, like, ‘What are you really about?’ It really comes out and getting to know somebody like that transfers through into the music.”

“What you have to understand about being on the road is no matter how many times you go, it is still incredibly exciting,” he offers. “The journey is important to the development of an artist whether it is five or ten years of your life. Just straight up going for it. When it gets to that point as an artist you can really hear how music takes over. You realize you have absolutely nothing to do with how the song is written anymore.”

Me Not Me

In the wake Invisible Baby, the creative urge to resume recording flooded Benevento’s consciousness during 2008’s touring, a pinball run that started in New Orleans and traveled to San Francisco and Seattle before finishing in Boulder, and ultimately yielded the tracking sessions for Me Not Me. The album features three new Benevento originals – “Mephisto,” “Call Home” and “Now They Are Writing Music” – alongside instrumental interpretations of My Morning Jacket‘s “Golden,” Led Zeppelin‘s “Friends,” Leonard Cohen‘s “Seems So Long Ago Nancy” and Beck‘s “Sing It Again.” Cuts by The Knife and George Harrison also find their way into this current exhale of music. Me Not Me features Reed Mathis on bass, with percussion duties shared by Matt Chamberlain and Andrew Barr (The Slip).

Marco Benevento
“This record really just boils down to tunes that I absolutely love,” Benevento offers. “The Leonard Cohen number I have been performing since 1999. I played it for my friend Brad [Barr] in The Slip and he melted at the coolness of the composition. We would play it at sound checks or just messing around while eating dinner. I particularly love the chord progression and I think Cohen’s music in general is gorgeous.”

“If you are hanging out with your friends and it is late, ‘Heartbeats’ is the song for the dance party,” he says in reference to the Swedish electronic duo The Knife he covers on Me Not Me. “That was the song for me in 2008. [And] we did a My Morning Jacket tune off It Still Moves, which was a record Joe and I used to wear out while we were on the road. I am one of those people who consider that band extremely important right now.”

For Me Not Me, Benevento brought in the engineering expertise of Bryce Goggin, who has logged reel time with Phish, Spacehog, Pavement, Sean Lennon, The Ramones and Akron/Family to name but a few. He owns Trout Recording, a studio space in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

“We tracked it in two days,” says Marco. “Tucker Martine engineered our session in Seattle. He came highly recommended by Matt [Chamberlain]. He has worked with the Decemberists, Mudhoney, Sufjan Stevens, and a handful of others.”

It was five months later that Benevento arrived on Goggin’s doorstep with the session tapes.

“I love working with him,” Benevento says about Goggin. “Those moments where it is just he and I sitting there, getting into it. He has these two assistants with him that are really cool dudes. I trust his opinion and his suggestions. He is sort of the fourth member of the Trio. If I had an idea to run the piano through the Leslie instead of an old projector amp, there would be no hesitation from him. There was no flinching with any requests, especially going in the tonal direction.”

“He has got a cool layer. Bryce has Paul McCartney’s old tape deck, as well as a bunch of amazing keyboards, organs and recording devices. It is just a cozy dialed in place. He’s a pro. I like to call his studio the ‘House of Closure,’ because when we are done with a tune, it’s literally done. He is not the kind of guy to over-think stuff. He likes to bring the raw elements out of the tune. Sometimes I get really precise while editing here at my place, and then you go over to Bryce’s and he just cranks it,” says Benevento in a quick, boisterous voice while animating the turning of knobs. “Yeah, that sounds good. Crank it. Yeah, turn it up! Fuck it, check this out! Roll tape!” If fans had it their way, tape would roll every time Marco sits at the keys. Lucky for us there’s an ever-growing catalog of material from an always larger pool of projects and one senses Marco won’t be slowing down anytime soon. The challenge is just trying to keep up with Marco Benevento.

Marco will be pitching tent at Yoshi’s in Oakland for a February residency. His return to New York City is scheduled for March 7 at Brooklyn’s Bell House.

Marco Benevento – “Live At Tonic”


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