Marco Benevento is celebrating at an airport in New York with a glass of champagne, hitting the road with his trio in support of his 8th album, the piano-wizard, jazz/rock mashup Let It Slide.
A Berklee graduate rooted in NYC’s underground jazz scene, Benevento came from playing places like Brooklyn’s tiny Bar4 to collaborating with Trey Anastasio, Ween, and even Freddie Gibbs and Madlib.
An instrumental jazz pianist at heart, Benevento has always searched for new sounds, musical tools or ways of composing, though his newest discovery is that of his own voice, and that’s worth a champagne toast.
“Back when we were just getting started, we put out all instrumental music – a blend of jazz and, like, an Elton John trio without singing,” Benevento said in an interview for BandWagon.
“Those were searchin’ times,” Benevento said. “I was basically starting a new band. I put out 4 records of jazz tunes that sounded like rock in their melodies. “And then,” he says, “I just started singing.”
“The transition point was Tiger Face,” Marco recalls. “I had two songs that I imagined vocals on. Kalmia Traver (Rubblebucket) sang on those and I thought ‘I like hearing my music with someone else singing it!’ It was a whole new pathway for composing.”
The record he made with the late Richard Swift took things further. “The doors opened to [me] singing when we made Swift,” he said. I had all these songs, vocal lines, melodies and lyrics. I was gonna bring Kalmia out to sing, and I thought, well, Kal’s not in the band – If I have someone else in the band sing, it’s always gonna be my music with someone else singing. So I just decided to sing the songs myself, bite the bullet and go for it.”
As a pianist, Benevento has always had a “voice,” so to speak, and though writing with a focus on actual vocals is relatively new, he says his writing style remains his own.
“Now I know where my vocal range is, so I’ll change the key of a song,” Benevento laughs, “but I don’t think [the writing style] changed that much. Our first record Invisible Baby has melodies that could have lyrics. Even before, in my duo with Joe Russo, it was almost like we were covering songs that originally had vocals.”
“I’ve always been a melody-driven composer,” Benevento continued. “Not much has changed in that regard. It’s still me, but instead of the melody being played on a synthesizer, it’s being sung by me. There are words, of course, which changes the whole thing – It’s like an instrumental songwriter gone vocal – which sounds like a disaster,” Benevento laughed. He’s aware old school fans might favor his instrumentals, but he defends his vocals as a direct extension of his composing. “It’s just like another instrument,” he says. “It’s the fourth member of our trio, but it’s still the trio.”
“Karina (Rykman, bassist) sings with us too, which is cool,” Marco said, “and some songs, instead of being 8 minutes, are like 4 – a nice break from the jams and open ended songs. It’s almost like pop, but it’s still me.”
Indeed, Benevento’s spirit of improvisation bleeds through the album’s pop-leanings, notably on the ear-turning “Gaffiano” interludes.
“When I was recording with Leon Michels (El Michels Affair), he gave me the nickname Gaffiano,” Benevento says. “The piano sounded too piano-y, so I put gaff tape on the strings to make it sound muted. [Leon’s engineers] were like ‘what did you do to the piano?! Sounds amazing – leave it on there! Can you play, like, a Keith Jarrett solo?’ ‘Sure!’ I said – ‘Great, can you play something that sounds like Sun Ra?’ ‘Sure!’ I said,” and one of the record’s sonic keystones was born.
“This all stems from me touring and playing a piano,” Marco recalls, “looking at the stings right in front of me, thinking – what if I just put my hand over this thing?” The gaff tape trick was an adaptation of that idea, and adaptation has happened in his life too, having moved upstate to Woodstock from New York City a few years ago.
The Benevento house and home studio are surrounded by the Catskills, but Colorado is still an invigorating tour stop. “Colorado is such a unique state,” Marco says. “I love everything about the mountains and the air, the beautiful starry nights. We’ve played some outdoor shows in crazy ski towns where it’s almost too cold to play,” he recalls. And though he couldn’t even feel his fingers at a few memorable mountain gigs, he’s always down to play.
That joy of play is strong in the Benevento bloodline, as is the itch for the rock-star lifestyle. “I’ve got a 12 year old and a 10 year old,” he says. “Our oldest is like ‘I wanna come with you on tour,’ and I’m like ‘well, you gotta do lights or do sound or something!’ So she’s trying to figure out how she gets in it. She loves to sing and play piano – I think the music bug is in her and our youngest daughter too.”
Marco Benevento brings his masterful piano rock and wondrous jazz exploration to The Aggie Theater Thursday, February 6 in Fort Collins (tickets at aggietheatre.ticketforce.com) as well as February 7 at Public House in Crested Butte and February 8 at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver.