Marco Benevento is one of the premier jazz pianists improvising in a rock context today. He is a bandleader in his own trio Marco Benevento, came to prominence through his Duo (Marco Benevento and Joe Russo), also touring as a member of Garage A Trois and Bustle In Your Hedgerow (alongside Dave Dreiwitz of Ween (RIP)) - a band that enthusiastically revisits and revamps the Led Zeppelin catalog. He came to national attention when he and his longtime friend and collaborator Russo were chosen by Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish to collaborate on songwriting and a studio recording Bar 17. The success of this collaboration led to the announcement of a nationwide tour in 2006 by the four musicians sometimes dubbed GRAB by their legion fans. The younger duos intuitive lock, demanding chops and youthful energy proved the perfect antidote for the core of a band that continued to flirt with hiatus and retirement. Marco's focus these days is on his family and extensively touring his trio in support of his breakthrough 4th solo release TigerFace. NorthernHeads had a chance to catch up with Marco for an interview while waiting out Hurricane Sandy.
Q: You were born in Livingston, New Jersey but grew up in a town called Wyckoff, NJ picking up piano at age 7. What drew you to the piano at that age, later 'discovering jazz' at 15. Who were the artists that you became interested initially and who have stayed with you as influences?
A: My folks bought an upright piano and my older cousins would come by and play. So that was the very beginnings of being interested in the piano for me. I took lessons for a while as a kid but what really drew me in were synthesizers. I remember seeing my first Moog keyboard in the school auditorium and freaking out. I was in bands as a kid, played sweet sixteen parties and did battle of the bands, but what got me thinking about music was learning about improvisation and jazz during my first year in high school. I played all sorts of music as a kid. My dad is into Neapolitan Songs so we'd sing those together after dinner or whenever family came over. I played a lot of classic rock too, Traffic, The Who, The Kinks, The Doors. I got into jazz through Jimmy Smith, Oscar Peterson, and later through Miles, Larry Young and more electric rock jazz. Brad Mehldau was a pianist that really turned my ear around and I really got into his playing and actually became friends with him and got a long lesson at his house one day. Led Zeppelin has stayed with me as an influence! That band is so freakin good!
Q: My impression was that your connections to a lot of your frequent collaborators (Joe Russo, Andrew and Brad Barr, Marc Friedman) dated to your attending Berklee. Is that the case? One thing I've read you say about Berklee is "everyone plays with everybody, everyone collaborates with everybody, everybody writes songs with everybody’. That seems like an ethos that you’ve carried with you throughout your career. Would you agree and is your new album TigerFace a good example of that sort of collaborative mentality or are you really driving these compositions and the other musicians are helping give voice to them.
A: That's a great question. The answer is basically both things you mentioned! Tigerface is a good example of the collaborative mentality AND I'm driving these compositions as the other musicians give voice to them. Well put, you said it yourself! I was a bit more spontaneous with recording process for this record. Mike Gordon stopped by for the day and he wound up testing some basses at my house and I thought Mike is sitting here playing bass through my amp and there is a mic right there. . . record it! Why not play him the tune you need bass on and see what happens. Same was true when Matt Chamberlain texted me, "hey I'll be in NY tomorrow night." I texted him back "LET'S RECORD." I had no idea really what to record the next day but lots more than expected came of it. Reed Mathis and Andrew Barr were on tour with me on the west coast and we thought while on tour, let's record at the end and see what happens. We made it happen with a small handful of ideas on the table and had a blast doing it. The tunes that were more shaped than others were Fireworks, This Is How It Goes and Soma. And even those tunes had some spontaneous writing happening in the studio. Andrew and Reed are really creative in the studio and extremely supportive of the music. We've known each other for a while and can do some musically intuitive things together that go above and beyond our expectations. The band now with Dave Dreiwitz and Andy Borger is getting to that same point, which is exciting to have happen. We've played tons of shows together as a trio and that intuitive thing is getting really deep and energized between us.
Q: You are also credited as being a regular contributor to the New York contemporary improvisational scene. Who amongst the players that you've played with (in settings like the Knitting Factory, Tonic or elsewhere) have truly guided your musical education? Who do you consider your contemporary jazz peers?
A: It's interesting that you learn from your peers basically without saying one word while you're on stage. It's true your music education continues after "school." Getting tossed into NYC after Berklee was the best thing for me. I met so many people that inspired me and I've had the pleasure to play with. Joe Russo and I started at the Knitting Factory as the Benevento/Russo Duo and we grew into playing around the country and developing a little following. I wound up playing with Wayne Krantz and Ari Hoeing in NYC a handful of times - those guys can really play. I played with Medeski Martin and Wood in Brooklyn and that was incredible. Those guys are on a whole other planet, I love them.
Q: On this tour in support of the album you’re out with long time collaborator in various contexts Dave Dreiwitz on bass with Andy Borger on kit. The historic Benevento Trio seems to be with Reed Mathis on bass and Matt Chamberlain on drums. TigerFace is remarkable for it's continuity of sound considering there are no less than 3 bass players and 4 drummers playing across the ten tracks. Could you talk about the personnel on this record and perhaps the recording setting at SOMA (Electronic Music Studio).
A: SOMA was incredible! Being with John McEntire (Tortoise, Sea and Cake, The Red Krayola, owner/producer SOMA) for two days is something every musician should do in their life. I basically showed up with a piano track that I pre recorded to a click. John set up his kit and played along to it 5 or 6 times and he dialed in some great drum sounds. John really knows his way around every piece of gear in his studio and it ALL works. I overdubbed Moog bass and he overdubbed some Simmons drums (during the end) and we were basically done. We mixed it the next day and went out to dinner after it all. SOMA rocks !
Matt and Reed are so fun to play with and they really helped me get my own music out there and are still helping me just not as frequently mainly because of all of the different bands that we're all in. As I'd mentioned, Andy Borger and Dave Dreiwitz have been the guys that I go on the road with. We're sounding way more evolved, mainly because we've been playing the tunes a lot and opening the them up on stage has been a great thing to watch or hear I should say.
Q: On this your fourth solo disc TigerFace, you’re making some bold steps forward in terms of defining your sound. It strikes me as a very theme or melody based sound working loosely within a jazz framework. In your recent interview with the Huffington Post you reflected a bit on your creative process including that you do some ‘loop based writing’ but often it’s just you and the piano. There are many sounds coming out of TigerFace from piano, to what sounds like harpsichord, plucked harmonics, to electronic drones that sound like they could only have come out of your jerry rigged equipment. I wonder if you could describe how your relationship with your equipment in your home environment or on tour has influenced your sound on this record?
A: Sometimes it's fun to get a loop pedal out and plug a circuit bent children's toy into it and see what sort of loop you can make. After making the loop, sometimes, I'll walk away from it, do the dishes, casually ignore it and eventually I'll start to hear a bass note or a bass line or I'll hear a melody that might go over it. Loop writing can be pretty hypnotic and can bring out some harmonic ideas that your hands and mind might not have naturally gone to.
My relationship with my equipment in my home environment is essential like you mentioned. I do have a little studio in the country. I'm constantly messing around with running the acoustic piano through effects. I've found that the tube amp is really important for amping the piano. On TigerFace I mainly used this old Ampex 620 as my piano amp and the piano runs through distortion, tremolo and vaious other guitar effects. Getting good sounds and figuring out how to do what you want to do with sound has been a side study next to the piano for me over the last 6 years. I've been around some great engineers who have showed me a little here and there about amps, mic pre's, keyboards, I've found that to be very interesting and very helpful when recording your own music.
Q: When travelling the long highways of these continental United States, touring in support of your various ensembles, what is your favourite song to hear come on the AM radio dial? The FM radio dial? Or what is a song that you have heard playing somewhere (like a grocery store) that really stopped you in your tracks?