Marco Benevento – Duos, Trios & Circuit Bent Toys

Jazz and rock music have had an intertwined relationship throughout their musical histories. Throughout their pasts, musical artists have firmly bridged the gap between these two classic styles. Marco Benevento, piano and keyboard visionary is one of these musicians. Following in a tradition of fusion era artists, he has blurred the lines between these two traditions with his heralded experimentation in The Duo (with drummer, Joe Russo), and currently The Marco Benevento Trio, featuring bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey) and drummer Matt Chamberlain, (Tori Amos).  With a more classic jazz instrumentation, Benevento has brought in two other intense improvisers while reinventing the way to use an acoustic piano, and created one of the more intriguing improvisational acts today.

Listening to either the Trio’s 2008 studio album, Invisible Baby, or their live sets, one is immediately struck by the musicianship of  all three artists.  Yet, their sound is noticeably anchored by Benevento’s soulful and crescendo-building piano work which regularly moves their music in different directions.  From the heavier more distorted sounds of “Bus Stop,” to the avant-garde “Atari,” to refined jazz ballads like, “You Must Be a Lion,” their music provides a wide spectrum of improvisational textures. With Mathis and Chamberlain providing emotionally accurate accompaniment to Benevento’s piano playing, the Trio has been turning heads—most significantly, each others’, as they have formally embarked on a dedicated collaboration.     

In discussing the pathway of their musical improvisation, Benevento and Chamberlain share a perspective—they each “default to rock.” Like almost all of today’s generation, Benevento and Chamberlain grew up listening to rock music, and both cite rock, rather than jazz, as the authentic roots of their music. Benevento explains, “What happened to me along the way [was that] I defaulted to rock. I went and studied lots of stuff at school (Berklee) and studied with a lot of teachers and did a lot of jazz gigs in the standard jazz tradition, and then I just went back to rock music.”

 Chamberlain elaborated, “We’re still improvising, but it’s with the kind of music we grew up listening to.  With most of the people in this community that we play with, it’s the same deal.  We all studied jazz and understand it, but the ‘jazz beat’…isn’t really a part of our lives.”  As these musical styles are bridged in the Benevento Trio, innovative and original music has most often been the result.  “It’s [jazz] something we appreciate,” explains Benevento, “But we’re not gonna’ go out and play straight ahead jazz and start improvising, but playing rock grooves or these songs [on Invisible Baby] makes more sense [to us].”

The constant debate of critics trying to classify their music has been a point of frustration for Benevento. “We’re not avoiding any genre and we’re not succumbing to any genre in particular…We do it the way that we do it.” That explanation seems good enough for the band, but when people try to pigeonhole their music, Benevento tries to dismiss the semantic debate. “It just doesn’t work. People ask, “’What is it? Is it jazz or is it rock?’  I don’t know—someone call it something and that’s what it is, because it’s right in between there.  What did David Frick write?  I thought it was cool, ‘It’s like a cross between Keith Emerson and McCoy Tyner.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’, like dirty rock organ and very deep rooted, heavily studied jazz music with the technique and dedication of rock, or Zeppelin.”  Unconcerned with how their music is labeled, Benevento has continued to explore different ways of musical experimentation within his newly developed and classically structured piano, bass, and drums trio.

The genesis of the Marco Benevento Trio, can be traced back to Benevento’s residency at Tonic in New York City in 2006, which resulted in the well-received three CD set “Live at Tonic.”  In a period of a few months, Marco had the opportunity to play with a rotating group of like-minded musicians featuring Stanton Moore, Bobby Previte, Skerik, Billy Martin, Chamberlain, and Mathis.  Benevento cites his residency as “a learning experience in playing music and being a musician.”  Benevento elaborated on this notion.  “The more I can play with different people, the more I can learn as a musician, about myself, and how to communicate music with other folks…I’m learning more how to be comfortable behind my instrument [in any setting].”  

 It was at Tonic, during this “learning experience,” that Benevento, Mathis, and Chamberlain first played together as a trio, they immediately clicked.  After their first experience playing together, Benevento remembers thinking, “Oh my God!  I’ve got to be in a band with Reed and Matt!  This has got to happen.”  Mathis noted, “We all wanted to do it again, so we found a way to do it.”  And in terms of the future, Mathis added, “We’re gonna’ keep it going for sure.  The music is killing and we’re all really into it, the record [Invisible Baby] turned out great and we’re starting another one this week’ (in a studio in Seattle where a lot of Invisible Baby was recorded).  And so it has come to pass, The Marco Benevento Trio has an authentic energy around their music and a desire to make more and push musical confines.  Yet, Benevento is reluctant to commit all his time to any one individual project.

His residencies (at Tonic, and more recently at New York’s Sullivan Hall) have given Marco “a bigger picture of the world.  It’s like living in New York—I am just one of so many people.  As a musician, you’re one of so many people.  Everyone I play with is just one person that I’m learning from…It’s an evolution thing.”  His evolution has brought him to many musical places, ranging from the Duo, to an individual musician, to a leader of a trio, and a member of a quartet.  And yet, Benevento says throughout the changes in stage partners, “There is still that camaraderie.  I still have this circle of people I play with a lot.  As wide as it is and as many people as it seems like, it’s still a very small circle…a little scene of musicians, which is cool.”

While featuring both Mathis and Chamberlain in his current project, it is truly Marco Benevento, himself, who is the focal piece of the trio.  His passion, skill and innovation on the acoustic piano drive the band’s onstage improvisation, and his melodic sense carries their music’s emotional weight.  Widely known for his “lo-fi” sounds and textures, avant-garde playing, and willingness to improvise with different instruments and circuit bent toys, Benevento is an experimental piano scientist. 

In his years of playing with childhood friend Russo in The Duo, Benevento was responsible for playing all layers of melody, harmony, and textures while still holding down the bass lines with his left hand.  Russo’s job was to make sense of the one man instrumentation and provide driving and experimental beats.  Yet, in his new Trio, using only acoustic piano, Benevento feels more freedom in the groove.  “It’s a whole ‘nother story. I can toss the ball around much further, which means one extra person.  I could toss it [musical ideas] to Matt and Reed, and Reed tosses stuff to me, harmonically, because he is doing the bass lines.  I’m not telling him to go to G like I would allow myself to go to G with myself [in The Duo]….With Joe, it’s a little easier to pull it off in a ‘successful’ way by myself, because I’m making sense of myself and Joe’s just making sense of it all. In the trio, Reed is trying to make sense with Matt, Matt is trying to make sense with me, and I’m trying to make sense with Reed, and Reed is trying to follow me.”

For Benevento, with multiple layers of communication in the Trio comes the opportunity for “a little more freedom because I don’t have to play the bass lines.  I can let my left hand do chords, or I could fill in different ways.  Sometimes when I’m doing bass lines and lead lines, there’s this middle part that is missing—the chords—so I like to just toss it to somebody and follow them….I don’t have to think as much, I just have to listen more.” This difference in approach can be clearly heard in their live set as Mathis’ fluid bass work directs the improvisation as much as Benevento’s piano.

Through the use of technology, Marco has devised ways to make the acoustic piano greater than the sum of its parts and manipulate the sounds it produces. This experimentation began while practicing at his home.  “Every time I’m at home playing the piano, I have my laptop open and a mic on, and I’m running the piano through distortion and reverb…And then I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I do that live?…It was just as easy as getting a thirty dollar acoustic guitar pick-up, a distortion pedal…and running it into the monitor—it was as easy as that.” 

These techniques allow Benevento to move in more variant directions within the music.  “I have been able to mold the piano into an instrument that is really cool for me to play and very expressive…I like the way you can just manipulate a sound, whether it be a Hammond [organ] or a piano or whatever.  I’ve been looking at myself as more of a ‘sound sculptor’ than a pianist.” While remaining rooted in musical theory and harmony, Benevento has began to explore the effects of sound and color in his music—using the “same twelve notes” to create a wholly unique aura to his compositions.  Improvising with sound and music has given him a new outlook on his playing and a way to push the envelope even further, whether in the studio or onstage.

Central in his on-stage envelope-pushing adventures are circuit bent toys—childrens’ toys whose circuits have been altered to allow manipulation and tweaking of the sounds that they produce.  First introduced to the concept in 2005 by a fan in Chicago, Benevento has integrated the toys into his regular repertoire of sounds.  “I just got way into them…The reason why I like that stuff is that sound—its like something you like to smell or something you like to touch—its just satisfying to hear.  I like that low-bit, low-fi weird glitchy stuff in the background over an acoustic thing.  Used sparingly or used musically, they can be very effective.” 

The use of circuit bent toys creates a completely unique element to Marco’s music, while providing a surreal juxtaposition of sounds that one would not normally expect to hear emanating from the stages of jazz clubs.  These circuit bent toys, very prevalent on Invisible Baby, are something Benevento continues to explore.  “I’m just learning how to gltch them out and cut them up in Pro-Tools so I can use them in loop-ish type ways…I want to travel with all the samples [of the toys] on my laptop so I could just sample everything live [without having to bring all the toys on the road].”  When playing, “I could be like ‘crrrgggh’[making a sound] or ‘speak n spell’ or ‘Fischer Price toy with the cow on it,’ you know?  Sometimes the toys are just used for that one sound.”

In looking to the future, with so many diverse projects, Benevento wants to seek a balance between the Trio, The Duo, his family, and himself.  But in all this potential juggling, “there is this underlying thing—you’re learning, you’re learning, you’re getting better and you’re playing…Every year I can see significant growth.  Whether it be more or less financially each year—whatever.  You gotta’ get over that…I’ve noticed escalating [musical] growth for sure, and that’s what I hope to do all the way until my brain decides not to work.”  It’s safe to say that for the 30 year old Benevento, there is a lot left to learn and a lot of unique music that has yet to be discovered.  Stay tuned

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