The Straight Tonic with Marco Benevento
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
Did you ever get to hang out with Pelé?
They almost have a confessional quality – song’s that are recognizable but distorted in a very particular way. They sound like your own.
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?
[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?
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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