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Marco Benevento: A New Form of Fusion

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Some people who are in bands never studied or never got into the jazz world. That jazz world opens you up to this whole other way of being a musician. It's like I got screwed, in a good way, like 'Oh no--now you know you like improvising'
With his work has one-half of the Benevento-Russo Duo, Marco Benevento has helped fuse elements of indie rock, improv jazz and jam band aesthetic, exciting nationwide audiences in clean concert halls, smoky bars, and muddy, open-air festivals like Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. Benevento is a student of the piano, trained at Berklee School of Music, but he seems most comfortable when surrounded on all sides by a collage of black and white keys, assorted buttons and knobs, trigger pads, guitar pedals, and an intriguing mix of circuit bent toys.

Invisible Babies is a collection of Benevento-penned tunes that for lack of a better word "didn't work" with band mate Joe Russo. After a guest stint at New York City's famed Tonic, Benevento came to the realization that the time for a solo record was now. Drummers Matt Chamberlain (who's recorded with everyone from Tori Amos and Natalie Merchant to Brad Mehldau and most recently Critters Buggin) and Andrew Barr (The Slip) and bassist Reed Mathis joined Benevento for the recording of Invisible Babies. After hours upon hours locked in his basement editing tracks, adding layers, toying with sounds and otherwise becoming a Pro-Tools masters candidate, Benevento emerged with a modern jazz record worthy of the iconic Fusion tag of 1975 or so.

Benevento spoke with All About Jazz just prior to the release of Invisible Babies about the recording of his first solo record and the cliche "learning experience" that it was.

All About Jazz: How does this record, or just working solo in general, differ from what you've done in the past with the Benevento-Russo Duo?

Marco Benevento: Well the big difference [on Invisible Babies] is that it's piano. With the duo I'm playing the Hammond organ and the Wurlitzer and even though they're keyboards, each of those instruments is very different. The piano is an instrument I've been studying all my life and obviously has a very different sound that the organ or the Wurlitzer.

Another thing about this record is that I had creative control over the whole thing and I didn't really need to consult anyone about it. Anytime you work alone, you get to hire who you want to hire and do what you want and the musicians you work with trust that whatever you do will come out good or as planned. They trust your plan. Reed [Mathis], Matt [Chamberlain] and Andrew [Barr] had a lot of trust that my plan was gonna be a good one.

AAJ: And so with the duo is there a lot of collaboration in the songwriting process?

MB: Well yeah of course. With any band—or I would assume with any band, but I guess every band is different—but most bands I would say, they get together in the room or practice space or whatever and they try to bounce ideas around and some person likes it or wants to change it. For the most part, with this record I was consulting my wife more than anyone. Actually, she came up with that second part of "Bus Ride"—the chord progression part, and then I put a melody over it.

It was nice to have my own personal vision and be up from 10 at night till 3 in the morning messing with Pro-Tools and learning Pro-Tools and putting stuff together and thinking, "What can I add to this?" or "What can I do to this?" And then looking around my basement and adding.

I have this old pump organ from the 1800s and I added some of that and I added banjo on some stuff and I have a bunch of circuit bent toys here. So it was fun to just self explore in my nest. And I'd been working on my own nest for awhile—my wife and I just had a baby and Joe [Russo] and I took some time of the road—so my little basement in my apartment here in Brooklyn has just been overflowing with instruments and ideas.

AAJ: Did you have solid compositions before you sat down with the guys to record, and then did you go back and do post-production and toy with the recordings and make everything sound how you wanted?

MB:Kind of "solid ideas" in the sense that I had just decided that these parts would work and I would send them to the guys.

With "Are You The Favorite Person of Anybody," all I had really was a bass line and a piano part and I sent Reed and Matt the raw piano part and told them to imagine what they could do. There was a lot of emailing of mp3s—"Check this out, what do you think?"

Pretty much they would learn the song and when I flew out to Seattle [to record] we would just play it, without any rehearsal really. Reed knew all the notes and Matt knew the rhythms and on the week long tour we did, it just blossomed into something. After 3 or 4 nights of playing that stuff we said "Alright, well let's go record it" and it came together.

"You Must Be a Lion" was a song I had finished before we went on that tour. "Bus Ride" was pretty much done too, although, Matt was the one who suggested, "Why don't we just hit the cymbal and do some out-of-time shit for a while and then boom go into the third section." So that was his idea conceptually.

There was a healthy balance of both worlds: "Yeah this tune is down, this is how it is" vs "I don't know what to do—what do you guys think?" Which is good because no matter who I am playing with, whether it be a one off or a week long tour or a band, I would love for people to just put their input in, instead of being "Oh it's Marco's [project]—you're the bandleader, just tell me what to do!" I've known those guys for a while so I trust they would say something if they didn't like it or they would suggest something if they were feeling like it should go in a different direction.

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