Marco Benevento: Home on the Fringe
Photo by Michael Weintrob
Benevento was first anointed an heir apparent to the jam scene’s improvisational crown as half of The Benevento-Russo Duo, the forward-thinking instrumental combo that he formed with his lifelong friend Joe Russo. They attended the same Northern New Jersey middle school, bonding in class and dreaming up ideas in detention. The pair went their separate ways in high school, with Russo eventually moving to Colorado and joining the free-jazz ensemble Fat Mama, and Benevento attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
In Boston, Benevento studied jazz piano, fell in with The Slip crowd and, eventually, formed The Jazz Farmers. Soon after he graduated in 1999, he moved back to the New York area and reconnected with Russo entirely by chance. While waiting in line for a Medeski Martin & Wood show at the now-defunct club Tonic, Benevento ducked into a nearby bar to use the bathroom. Russo happened to be performing inside, the pair exchanged numbers and they started to gig in a variety of settings. Their first show as a duo took place at a Madonna tribute held at the hippie-rock incubator Wetlands Preserve in the summer of 2001.
Benevento’s sensibilities were defined at an early age as a mix of high-brow ideas, manic creativity and suburban restrictions. He likes to tell a story about advertising a public jam session at his Brooklyn apartment only to have his dad and brother, both of whom are lawyers, freak out that he might get sued.
The Duo, as they were eventually called, gradually picked up steam in the New York area through steady gigs at clubs like Knitting Factory and the endorsement of scene tastemakers the NYC-Freaks. They reached a new level of national attention in 2004 when they toured with Mike Gordon, who they met through Ropeadope records, and proved to be anything but a Phish offshoot with their post-jam masterpiece Best Reason to Buy the Sun.
Throughout the modern jam world’s leanest years, The Duo built a stable following and served as hipster-approved ambassadors to the indie-rock blogosphere. They also somehow managed to glue together the jam scene’s often isolated jazz, electronic, rock, funk and art house factions.
“A big part of why I like music is the free element,” Benevento admits, picking up the pace of his speech as he gets excited. “Meaning, improvising music on the spot in any style—whether it’s totally quirky, funny music or crazy Ornette Coleman-esque free-jazz music or pop/rock progressions made up on the spot. I love writing songs ‘live,’ playing with simple chords.”
During The Duo’s heyday, Benevento assumed the role of the hyper jazz-loving melody man while Russo embraced his image as the harder-edged, rock-loving drummer. They quickly picked up momentum, selling out marquee clubs across the country and landing in-demand festival gigs.
The Duo reached their broadest audience during the summer of 2006 when they scored an amphitheater tour with Gordon, Trey Anastasio and Phil & Friends; they opened the show and performed as part of a band with the Phish members. Concurrently, they released Play Pause Stop, an indie-influenced instrumental opus that sounded more like Explosions in the Sky than the Grateful Dead or Phish.
That fall, Benevento organized a weekly residency at Tonic and kick-started his solo career. Never one to take himself too seriously, he sold autographed keys from his butchered organ during the run. Benevento’s Tonic residency resulted in a live album and laid the groundwork for his eponymous trio. (For the first few years, Reed Mathis served as his steady bassist while Critters Buggin member Matt Chamberlain and The Slip’s Andrew Barr usually alternated drum duties.)
Besides the use of bass guitar, the main difference between Benevento’s trio and his work with Russo was his emphasis on acoustic piano. He reclaimed those sounds from the jazz world by meshing them with circuit-bent toys that often rested on top of the piano. The Duo held on for another year or so but eventually faded away as their individual goals started to drift. Some of the songs off Benevento’s 2008 solo studio debut Invisible Baby —conceived around the same time as Benevento’s first daughter— were actually originally written with The Duo in mind.
“We tried to figure [the new Duo material] out and write some more parts for those songs together—it was the early stages of the trio,” Benevento said in 2011. “The Duo was fizzling out—and then really fizzled out to one show per year—and the trio was taking off. We started playing ‘Atari’ and ‘Bus Ride’ with The Duo but when I played [the uptempo electro-jam] ‘The Real Morning Party’ for Joe, he just started laughing. He put his head down and said, ‘What else you got? I can’t play that. Are you crazy!’ [Laughs.] But Reed was like, ‘I love this song. I want to throw my hair back and bask in the sunshine.’” (Anyone looking for deeper fractures in their relationship should know that Russo asked Benevento to play his wedding last year and that the two still regularly see each other.)
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