The Straight Tonic with Marco Benevento

By: Josh Potter

Marco Benevento By Greg Aiello
Anyone fortunate enough to have stumbled into NYC’s legendary Tonic on a Wednesday night in November 2006 not only bore witness to some of the late venue’s final, elegiac performances, but to five nights of keyboard renegade Marco Benevento in his most fertile creative habitat. For those of us that didn’t get the memo, there is Marco Benevento – Live at Tonic (released August 7 on Ropeadope), a three disc collection of choice solo, duo, trio and quartet tracks handpicked for the benefit of our auditory nerves.

Fresh off of a busy touring schedule with G.R.A.B., Bobby Previte’s Coalition of the Willing, Bustle In Your Hedgerow and the Benevento/Russo Duo, Benevento hunkered down for the month-long residency while Ropeadope‘s Andy Hurwitz hovered nearby with a hungry musical specimen jar. Modeled on Christian McBride‘s set of a similar name, Live at Tonic captures Benevento behind an acoustic piano, as opposed to his standard organ and arsenal of circuit-bending toys.

The results are raw and fiercely creative. With help from Mike Gordon, Reed Mathis, Matt Chamberlain, Bobby Previte, Joe Russo, Mike Dillon, Steven Bernstein and the rhythm section from Ween, Benevento mines lesser-known gems by the likes of Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen and Carly Simon for their molten core. With a handful of brand new originals thrown in, the discs shift from tender to reckless at a moment’s notice. A jazz musician rocking out, a rocker jamming, a jammer at the helm of a one-man orchestra, he’ll have you know it’s all just folk music – the most natural thing in the world.

JamBase: Tell us a little bit about how Live at Tonic came about.

Marco Benevento: How the fuck did it come about? I have no idea. Oh, you know how it came about, it was sort of The Duo’s manager’s idea, actually, Marc Allan. I had an offer to go on the road with Bobby Previte…

JamBase: With the Coalition of the Willing?

Benevento by Jay Blakesberg
Marco Benevento: Yeah. I did an awesome West Coast tour with them, and then they wanted to do a Fall tour and I was like, “Sure.” But, my manager made the obvious apparent and said, “You know, if you keep on touring you’re just going to get sort of tired,” because being away from home and touring all the time is definitely exhausting.

JamBase: Right, and you were still touring with The Duo last Fall, too.

Marco Benevento: Right. So he’s like, “Why don’t you stay around and do a residency, instead.” And I thought, “Sure.” It was a brilliant idea. That way I wouldn’t get too burned out and get the opportunity to play with other folks, which is a huge requirement, as a musician. So, it was his idea as far as the residency goes, and then the personnel were my idea. So, I’ve got five Wednesdays [and] every Wednesday I was, like, “How am I going to make this interesting?”

Was it a new kind of stress pulling together different bands for each night, or were the others pretty psyched and available?

I was so psyched every day before that residency because it was my chance to put on my own show. I was thinking, man, we could do one night with, like, three drummers, because I’d always wanted to do something with just piano and all drums – you know, just bring all of the drums and percussion I have at my house. So, that’s one night right there with Joe [Russo], Bobby Previte and Mike Dillon. And I wanted to get Mike Gordon on board because I just love him. He’s a really sweet guy and a very creative dude. When I asked him about it, it was his idea to play the music of Benny Goodman.

Yeah, I was going to ask about that. It seems pretty out of left field, but works so well.

The Duo by Kevin Quinn
Yeah, it worked out well. We [The Duo] were really touring a lot right before then, so we only had about a couple hours before the gig to throw it all together. So, it was a little lackluster, but it made it on the album. We’ve got three songs. Each disc ends with a little duet of Mike and I playing a Benny Goodman tune. The engineer sort of “lo-fi-ed” it out, so it sounds like it’s coming out of an old record player or something.

One of my favorite moments is in the middle of “Moonglow” when the entire room of however many people starts whistling along.

Oh, man, I’ll tell you, that was the greatest thing about Tonic. Everybody that was there was totally psyched to be there. They were happy it was a small venue. Tonic is known as a sort of avant, experimental venue and everybody was free to be as freaky as they wanted to be. On “Sing, Sing, Sing” they were pounding beer bottles on the tables. It was just nice to play some jazz with Mike, and in a different setting. So, of course, there was going to be a solo night. Andy Hurwitz at Ropeadope was like, “At least one night has to be solo.” And I was glad to hear that. It was fun. I got to bring my whole basement into the room and ran around like a monkey playing everything. Then the last night was with Reed [Mathis] and Matt Chamberlain. We did a tour in 2004 or 2005 – I don’t remember [which]. It was the Ropeadope New Music Seminar tour, and Matt was on board with Skerik and Bobby Previte. That’s where we met. We had a night off on that run and I threw together a gig with Matt. Reed was in town so he joined us and it was explosive. I was like, “Oh my God.” I knew three years ago that I wanted to have that rhythm section with me on stage again. So, it was always in the back of my mind that I’d do a trio with those two guys, and Matt was free so we flew him in. That was one of my favorite nights for sure. We played some new original tunes.

You’ve got some more dates scheduled in the near future with that same lineup, right?

Exactly. We’re doing three nights at Yoshi’s [in Oakland, August 9 – 11] and the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz [occurred August 8]. I’m totally looking forward to that.

A lot of the jammers are getting into Wilco… Same with Radiohead. There is a general wave of change. People are interested in hearing something new.

-Marco Benevento

Photo by Aaron Williams

That’s a great room.

Yeah. So, the Tonic thing then came together as an album when Andy said, “Let’s record it and release it.” He called me in October, like three weeks before November. I said, “Well, sure, if you want to put out an album, I’d love to do that.” And he was like, “It will be just like what we did with Christian McBride. It’ll be a three disc live album.” It really pumped me up knowing that it would be released and that I’d get some focused personal time. I got really into it and after it was recorded I went and weeded through it all to pick my favorite tracks. Actually, after my solo gig I called Joe and said, “Dude, I highly recommend doing the solo thing.”

Is he considering it?

Joe Russo by Kevin Quinn
I hope so. I don’t know if he is, but when I mentioned it to him he just kind of laughed and I didn’t know what that meant. It would be pretty fucking cool if he did a solo drum night. I would go see that in a second.

I think a lot of people would.

You know, for example – this is on a higher level, of course – but Wilco has Nels Cline and Glenn [Kotche]. Those two guys are monsters as individuals. They make killing records on their own. Nels has ridiculous albums out, and Glenn has these amazing, percussive kind of Balinese gamelan albums. What I’m saying is, I think it’s really important for musicians to sort of reach out from their comfort zone. It’s easy to get in a zone of “This is how I make my money – this is my band. This is all I want to do and go home to chill.” It’s good to keep the gears going all the time.

Was it nice to find yourself on an acoustic piano for a change?

Marco Benevento by Dave Vann
Yeah, that’s a big point. It was a different instrument, the piano instead of the organ. The piano is the instrument I started on, the instrument I practice the most on and the instrument I’ve studied the most on. To be in that space was great. I can’t get enough of playing the piano. It’s going to be an awesome experience this summer with Matt and Reed. It’s nice to not have to take care of the bass lines with the left hand, and be able to play some chords. You know, I just realized I didn’t mention the quartet night with [bassist] Dave Dreiwitz, [drummer] Claude [Coleman], [both of Ween] and Steven Bernstein. That was right up there with the trio mainly because we did totally free music. I’d known Dave for a while. He’s in Bustle In Your Hedgerow, and when I asked him about that day he said, “Why don’t we just do it with Claude?” Claude was a monster. He plays his ass off on free jazz.

In light of the stuff you’ve been doing with The Duo these past few years – building lush, textured rock arrangements – hearing you play the acoustic piano in a jazz context sounds pretty spare. That said, you’re still filling that range of space with the piano that you usually cover with your organ and toys.

Benevento by Quinn
Oh, that’s good to hear. It’s interesting because a piano is like an orchestra. You can take care of the string parts in the higher register, the Wurlitzer parts in the middle, the bass line below. It’s a great exercise in independence between the two hands, trying to do all those parts you imagine and kind of playing the whole keyboard. It’s really cool. You really learn how to use the two halves of your brain and make them come together, which is a big thing with the organ, too – that independence with your left and your right.

I think your take on Monk’s “Bye Ya” stood out most for that purpose.

You know, I’ve been trying to play that arrangement for years. I came up with it in 2000, seven years ago. Joe and I have performed it like that as a duo but it was nice to try it solo, covering all those parts, with that intensity, by myself. I could probably play that arrangement of “Bye Ya” until I’m 80 and still not be awesome at it. It’s a great study in left and right hand independence as well as improvising over different time signatures. I think it received the loudest applause that night, which was kind of strange because it is a hard arrangement to follow.

Tell me a little bit about the song selection. Despite almost half of the material being improvised, the sets are filled out with these kind of obscure gems, like the Carly Simon cover [“Nobody Does It Better”].

Yeah. This is a pretty cool thing. There’s a lot that makes a musician a musician. Number one: courage. Number two: your taste – you know, what you want to do with it. Number three: consistency. The tunes a musician covers say a lot about him. A total classic example for me, as a pianist, is [Brad] Mehldau covering Radiohead.

…or Nick Drake

Marco Benevento by Jay Blakesberg
Right, Nick Drake. That sort of stuff was always done back in the day. Oscar Peterson was covering Cole Porter – just show tunes that were happening back then. Herbie Hancock did an album where he covered some Nirvana. The Bad Plus is covering Rush.

It’s cool to see that. I had the opportunity to study with Mehldau one day. I went to his house for like seven hours and he played that album Largo before it was mixed – the one that has “Paranoid Android” and some other covers. And I was like, “Oh, Dude, I knew you were cool.” He was like, “Oh yeah, I used to listen to Led Zeppelin.” We went off on Zeppelin and Rush for a while. It’s just super cool to hear some badass musician cover a rock tune that everybody knows, because they’re just people like you and I, not some magical geniuses. However, they are also these magical geniuses. But, they’re not untouchable or unreachable. The Carly Simon tune, for example, is like the earliest memory I have of knowing what it feels like to love a song. My dad used to work for the [New Jersey] soccer team The Cosmos, so we used to go every Sunday to see a game.

The piano is the instrument I started on, the instrument I practice the most on and the instrument I’ve studied the most on. To be in that space was great. I can’t get enough of playing the piano.
Photo by Michael Weintrob

Did you ever get to hang out with Pelé?

Marco Benevento by Jay Blakesberg
Totally. At the end of every game they’d play “Nobody Does it Better,” and my parents would be like, “Come on, Marco, let’s go,” and I’d say, “Wait.” I always loved that tune. It was always a sad, day-ending thing. I’d be in Giant Stadium with all these people around and then the song would come on and I knew it was over. I only realized years later that it was a Carly Simon tune, not a Cosmos tune, and so I started playing it. But then, after the fact, I got this Radiohead album [a bootleg titled Ground Control To Major Thom] and the last song was “Nobody Does it Better.” I freaked out. Back to the Mehldau thing though – Joe and I used to cover “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and when I first went to Mehldau’s house he was like, “Sit down at the piano. I’ll be right there.” So I went downstairs, sat at the piano, and I saw the music on the piano. I didn’t want to look at it because I didn’t want to disturb what he was working on. I was just stupid and nervous, like, “Holy shit, I’m at Brad Mehldau’s house.” So, I eventually look at the sheet of music and it was “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” When he came back, I was like, “Dude, I cover this tune with Joe. We have a duo.” He was like, “Oh really, how do you do it?” I was immediately like, “I don’t know.” Anyway, long story short, I’ve always thought that covers are a cool window into your favorite artist. Maybe someone will be like, “Oh, cool. He covered that Pink Floyd tune ‘Fearless’ with distortion on an acoustic piano.”

They almost have a confessional quality – song’s that are recognizable but distorted in a very particular way. They sound like your own.

Marco Benevento by Kevin Quinn
Exactly. I’ve always been a fan of the, kind of, lo-fi, distorted piano. It’s like a distant memory of the classic instrument. It’s nice to treat the piano like a guitar, as a lead instrument, throw some distortion on it and crank it through the house. When people hear that I’m doing a piano trio thing, they don’t think about loudness or intensity. They say, “Oh, sort of a jazzy thing [laughs].” Oh, I’m going to get into some shit here [pauses]. My father’s always been like, “Don’t try and reinvent the wheel.” And it’s very true, a lot of shit’s been done already. You don’t have to go crazy and make your life harder. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The cool thing about new art that is, maybe, successful or loved in this world, is that it’s a natural thing. It’s not that I’m doing this on purpose or anything. It’s just this natural progression of me being, like, why not throw distortion on the piano and see what that’s like.

Yeah, but I think there’s this ripple effect when people hear something like that and have trouble making heads or tails of it. This album being such a jazz-oriented one, it kind of falls between the cracks of what would commonly be considered jazz or rock or anything in between. How do you respond to being called a post-jazz or post-rock artist? Is it at all consequential in your mind?

Marco Benevento by Jay Blakesberg
No. I don’t care what they call me. They can call me jam band. Put this interview on JamBase and call me “jam” [laughs]. The quote for me about jazz is what Dizzy Gillespie said: “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse play music.”

It’s interesting because I often hear you lumped into this kind of weird, ambiguous genre called “post-jam,” along with Reed and the guys from The Slip and Scott Metzger.

[Laughs] I guess there is an overall wave of things.

In a way it’s more a mark of traditional jazz, harkening back to a time when everyone was playing with everyone else.

Yeah. It’s what’s happening now. A lot of the jammers are getting into Wilco and Mehldau’s on websites for people who like different kinds of music. Same with Radiohead. There is a general wave of change. People are interested in hearing something new and they’re getting it with new bands out there like Deerhoof and Two Gallants. It’s all “post” music.

So, looking into the future a bit, what lies ahead? More collaborations? Is there still a stone you need to turn over?

Marco Benevento
I think there’re still a ton of stones left unturned. So, there will be more of that, but a new Duo album is definitely in the future. Joe and I have a nice foundation of people who like to see us, as well as a great songwriting collaboration. Then more piano stuff with Reed and Matt or anybody – maybe Andrew Barr from The Slip, maybe an upright player. I’m sure I’ll take any opportunity I get to play with anyone new.

Great. Well, I wanted to ask you real quick about how fatherhood is treating you. I hear you just had a kid.

I did, I did. It’s actually caused a beautiful period of pause and clarity. There’s a greatness about touring all the time and then there’s a greatness in taking a break for a second. I now pretty much know the meaning of love, with my lady and my baby. My two ladies. It’s a really great thing.

Marco Benevento – “Live At Tonic”

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