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Benevento/Russo Duo: Hero Rock, Mind-Reading and Constant Movement

By Published: November 27, 2006
AAJ: Well, this is nothing any group needs to apologize for. Rock bands—Radiohead, Metallica, anyone—are going to do their show, their set of tunes. And every show isn't the same; if you think it is, you haven't seen a band three weeks into the tour, as opposed to the first or second night out.

MB: Exactly. When I'm on tour, I frequently fuck up—you know, going into the next section, that sort of thing. Every day is different—one day I'll be thinking, "Oh man, I just missed that chord. I totally missed where I was supposed to go. Sometimes it's because you're farther into the tour, and you didn't pay attention, whereas the first or second night, you're focused.

AAJ: You're obviously a complete road band—although you're one of the great road bands that also makes really good records as well. You guys spend long, long periods touring. Does this make writing music easier or harder?

JR: In a sense it makes it harder, because we don't get a lot of time to write. But when we do, we're really psyched to do it, so it makes it easer. We get to a point where we haven't sat down together in a really long time to consciously work out songs. And actually, we're at that point now—we haven't done anything like that since January. Every time we've had off recently has just been vacation time because we've been so busy. So after this Saturday, we are going to be off for two weeks, and we're so excited to work some stuff up and let out that energy we've built up. We've been playing the same songs for a while, so we are excited to hear some new sounds. We started working on a new thing last night at sound check, and it felt so good to get in that mode again. When we've been bottled up and not writing, and then we do get a chance, we're so bottled up that a lot of ideas just flow out. Which is what happened with writing the last four tracks on this record—we sat down and the ideas were just flowing. So that's how things work: we choke ourselves, and then we let it all out.

AAJ: You're in a situation that to me, is the best of all musical worlds, in that you can play completely compellingly as the Duo, but can also accommodate any number of other players such as [former Phish bassist and guitarist] Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio on the recent tour you did with them, or Skerik and Mike Dillon with the side group Duo Buggin', or just as guests with the Duo—obviously the list of friends and collaborators goes really deep. Does it take any real adjustment for you and Joe to play with other guys or is it just completely natural to make that switch from two to three to four players?

JR: It depends. Outside the Duo, it varies a lot. Playing with Skerik and Mike D. is a lot different than playing with Trey and Gordon. I think that when me and Marco and Skerik and Mike get together, it's just an open forum for craziness. That's its own thing. And when we did the tour with Trey and Mike Gordon, we had to change our playing style a bit. The song list we were playing put us in more of a background kind of role—playing as a drummer and a keyboardist instead of two guys who normally are alpha-male bandleaders. We had to take a backseat. And that was great; it is great to get to play in different situations and to perform in different ways. Going into it, we were really figuring out our role, and by the middle of the tour, we found that role—then everyone started playing a lot better together and it was really comfortable. It really varies from situation to situation. So I'd say it's easy to meld, but it does take a little bit of time sometimes.

MB: Whenever we play with other people, we kind of change the repertoire a little bit. It would be a different story if we were on a Duo tour and we had a guitarist and bassist learning our songs and playing the music with us and improvising with us. Then it would be pretty hard, because Joe and I have this kind of mind-reading thing where we as improvisers are pretty good at following each other, pretty good at surprising ourselves at how we will land on a certain part of the beat or on a certain chord. We're good at finding a certain flow within an improvisation. And as soon as you add another person to the mix, it definitely turns me and Joe into two people who are now accommodating a third member—which is cool, but Joe and I have been playing as a duo for almost five years now, so it feels less natural when you add another member. Which is totally natural.

But for the most part, most people that play with us find that it's really easy, because Joe and I have such a strong thing on our own that we create a nice little pad for Skerik or Mike D. or for any guitarist, like Brad Barr from The Slip. So it is kind of easy; for them it's like playing with a bassist, a keyboard player and a drummer who just give you this wonderful pad underneath them for them to do anything they want. We played once with [guitarist] Dave Fiuczynski once, and he loved it; actually, we got along fabulously and I went on to play some shows with him.

For the most part, adding another member just to play with us, aside from the music we're playing, is really not that hard because Joe and I have such a great connection. But at the same time, we know that when it's just the two of us, the connection is deeper. But it is a great thing anyway. Adding Mike Gordon to the mix was a little tricky because Joe's so used to locking up with my bass lines and now Joe had to lock up with another person playing rhythm and a heavy, strong kind of part that has to lock in with the drums. It is definitely a whole other thing. And then adding Trey to the mix—I had to learn to be a keyboard player, because I was so used to being the lead, the soloist, the melody, the bass, the harmony. But now playing with Trey, Joe and Mike, I had to turn into a keyboard player where I just did some comping on the piano, then went over to the Wurli and just played mellow, clean comping stuff there, and sometimes took the lead on Wurli or organ.

Early on the tour, I was playing this double-distorted lead instrument stuff [laughing]—I was just so used to playing so much that it took me a few days to get it: "Oh, keyboard player. I'm just the keyboard player. And that happened in time for the PNC Bank [Arts Center] show in New Jersey, and that was great—my parents and cousins were there, and it was the first show where we finally locked in together. That was really fun. But for the most part, playing with other people is great. It's easy, it's fun, and Joe and I love it. And we love it while we know about this deep connection we have as the Duo.

I mean, Joe and I were just living in New York, and we'd just do gigs. We were just New York musicians who played $50 gigs five days out of the week; we'd go play with tons of people. And when I lived in Boston—I went to music school there for a while—I'd play with tons of people there. So we've had more than our fair share of playing with different cats and knowing how to bend to what the other guy's going to do. We've also recorded with a bunch of other people.

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