It's hard, even one year and countless spins on, to listen to keyboard player Marco Benevento's gimcrack riot of sound "The Real Morning Party" without breaking into a huge grin, if not out-loud laughter. The track, from the Benevento trio's debut album, Invisible Baby (Hyena, 2008), explodes with an irresistible love of life.
The group's follow-up, Me Not Me, continues in the same abandoned and colorific vein as its predecessor. Some of the tracks are riotous and intoxicated, some are pretty and rhapsodic, and some are actually both. Beneventowho made his name as the Hammond B3 half of the Benevento/Russo Duo (with drummer Joe Russo), on albums like Best Reason To Buy The Sun (Ropeadope, 2005)makes the acoustic piano his lead instrument with the trio, but layers it with a host of other keyboards (many of them retro), bent circuitry and effects pedals. He improvises, regularly but briefly, in the traditional sense, but the main event is how he jams with the sonics.
The Benevento trio sits squarely among the jam bands of the 2000s, but its provenance is older. It goes back to a time when amped-up piano trios mixing jazz improvisation and rock beats were part of the pop mainstream, to albums like the Ramsey Lewis trio's The In Crowd (Chess, 1965)or, without the improv, perhaps a little further, to Bee Bumble and The Stingers' hit single "Nut Rocker" (1962), an apparently Benzedrine-fuelled assault on a tune from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker.
In 2009, technology allows the piano trio to take on the impact and variety of a symphony orchestra or a prog rock band, and Benevento constructs kaleidoscopic walls of sound with his keyboard overlays, stacked above the fat post-rock rhythms of bassist Reed Mathis and drummers Matt Chamberlain and Andrew Barr (who take half the tracks each). Video evidence suggests the trio's live gigs are somewhat stripped-down affairs (see the YouTube clip below), but on disc Benevento's keyboards are a finely nuanced pleasure, and their "distressed" analog sound can't hide the careful thought behind their arrangments.
In contrast to Invisible Baby, on which all the tunes were written by Benevento, Me Not Me contains three originals and seven covers. Benevento's reflective side is heard on My Morning Jacket's "Golden," Leonard Cohen's "Seems So Long Ago Nancy" and Beck's "Sing It Again," and his party animal on The Knife's "Heartbeat" and Deerhof's "Twin Killers." The heart-tugging lyricism of "Golden" and the barrelhouse rock 'n' boogie of "Twin Killers" are among the album's highlights, as is Benevento's whimsical, "I Am The Walrus"-informed "Call Home." The trio gets closest to straight-ahead piano trio jazz on Benevento's "Mephisto," a holdover from the Benevento/Russo Duo days. Every track is a winner. Me Not Me is the inaugural stone delight of 2009.
Golden; Now They're Writing Music; Seems So Long Ago Nancy; Mephisto; Twin Killers; Call Home; Heartbeats; Sing It Again; Friends; Run Of The Mill.
Marco Benevento: acoustic piano, Mellotron, Farfisa, Optigan, tack piano, clavinet, circuit bent toys; Reed Mathis: bass; Matt Chamberlain: drums (1, 2, 4, 9, 10); Andrew Barr: drums (2, 3, 5-7).
In addition to writing and editing for All About Jazz, Chris is editor of the British style/culture/history magazine Jocks&Nerds and consultant Afrobeat historian for Google Arts & Culture and Partisan/Knitting Factory Records.