Art of The Duo: Benevento & Russo Live at Higher Ground

Doug Collette By

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Marco Benevento and Joe Russo are on the verge of their breakthrough and they know it
With this, their fourth appearance in the greater Burlington area in less than a year(!), The Duo are rapidly becoming the darlings of the area music scene, but they're preparing to make a much larger impact than just Vermont's largest city: with a ballyhooed studio album set for release on Ropeadope Records in April and their cache enhanced by the increasingly frequent collaboration with former Phish bassist Mike Gordon (more about this later), Marco Benevento and Joe Russo are on the verge of their breakthrough and they know it.

A heavy Nor'easter blowing through the area minimized what no doubt been a much larger audience at Higher Ground, but the cold, wind and snow did not diminish the intensity of the music or the audience's reaction to it. The Duo played what is becoming a fairly standard repertoire for them, including the subdued change of pace likes of "Vortex,ï? so most tunes were greeted with whoops of recognition. More important, though, Benevento and Russo are playing these songs with a flair that comes from knowing this music they've been playing so long is indeed reaching people and moving them deeply.

It's little coincidence, either, that Benevento and Russo are clearly coming into their own as performers as well. And it's more than just the study in contrasts between these two who seem like alter egos: the pair would distinguish themselves by their unusual instrumental alignment if nothing else. But this tandem of keyboards and percussion have an uncommon rapport, not to mention some singular strengths: Benevento plays his keyboards as if his discovery of what sounds he can make with them is a never-ending joy, while Russo churns away behind his acoustic and (to lesser degree) electronic drums with a studied intensity, bordering at times on savagery, as on their arrangement of Elliot Smith's "Waltz #1.ï?

Just when you thought that the ultra-contemporary tone of the evening might wear thin—fusillades of fuzz-tone laden electric keyboards are best used sparingly?—The Duo played a Thelonious Monk tune as if to remind their roots do extend back to traditional jazz; in so doing, the two changed the entiretenor of their approach, from the often simplistic riffing that borders on elemental rock and roll, toMarco's delicate interweaving of Hammond organ lines supplemented by Joe's conventional stickwork. Displaying this sort of distinct versatility the pair do not resemble, and cannot be rightfully compared to, any of their young jazz peers including MMW, Soulive, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey or Vorcza. Yet another marked shift in tone and texture occurred when, one tune into the second of two sets that took The Duo right till the club's closing time, Mike Gordon strolled on-stage to commence an uninterrupted half-hour of increasing intensity and complexity,not to mention bottom of the dynamic range, keynoted by the introduction and restatement, in true jazz fashion, of Copland's "Hoedownï?. The bassist clearly led the extended improvisation and rightly so since he's more than a little familiar with such an approach from his days with Phish, but Benevento and Russo more than kept up: they took turns navigating the playing, particularly the drummer, whose multiple breaks were as clear a sign as his body English and dramatic gestures ( similar to his partner's) that they have become supremely confident of their individual and combined abilities.

So much so, in fact that, even after Mike left the stage, the mutual adoration in the venue escalated further with one round after another of well-know Duo material, until with a disarming adieu (Marco is as earnest as he is voluble), and a few more minutes of punchy riffs, The Duo's latest appearance in Burlington was complete. Benevento and Russo seem to thrive by playing for a comparatively small audience and perhaps that's true, but they're going to be able to bring that same spark to bigger crowds than the one that braved the inclement Green Mountain weather because their music is resounding more loudly all the time.

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