Brightening the Brilliant Corners

Marco Benevento plumbs jazz and pop, wild improv, and sweet melody

Here's Marco Benevento at Sullivan Hall, pumping his fists and grinning while he watches a slightly pixilated version of himself dancing to his song, "The Real Morning Party," in the modest kitchen of his Brooklyn apartment, ratty bathrobe and all. The video is blaring on a small projection screen in the corner of the club, and both Marcos—simulated and fleshy—are doing much of the same thing: head-banging, hair-tossing, and generally freaking out while the rest of the audience psychotically pounds the makeshift instruments he gave out earlier in the night.

"The Real Morning Party," anchored in the longest, most infectious video-game melody you've ever heard, really is a pretty fun song. Not to mention an emblematic Benevento construction: a deceptively simple study in theme and variation built with some clever chutes and ladders. It's also a fine tune for such a celebratory occasion: This is the record-release party for the Benevento- Russo keyboardist's debut solo album, Invisible Baby—a collection of piano-jazz tunes wrapped in glitchy clouds of Mellotron, banjo, Casio samples, frantic percussion, and circuit-bent toys.

It's also the last night of his January residency here, which drew packed crowds each week to watch him beat the hell out of his piano while surrounded by a small laboratory of instruments and a rotating cast of talented guests. With residences at Tonic and the Knitting Factory long under his belt, Benevento, 30, is already a bit of an old soul—one of a dying breed of downtown jazz musicians who've cut their teeth on the city's waning underground-club circuit. After graduating from Berklee in 1999, he moved to NYC to study with jazz luminaries like Brad Mehldau, Joanne Brackeen, and Kenny Werner. Soon afterward, he landed a regular slot at the old Knit alongside rubber-limbed drummer Joe Russo, with whom he's since released two insanely critically under-appreciated studio albums. And over the past five years, having toured with the likes of Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon, Benevento's also become something of an unwitting jam icon.

"For me, doing the improv stuff is like mental floss," he says over pizza and a celebratory bottle of wine in the Village. "After some improvisational gigs, I really feel like I was just sitting in the sauna or hot tub for an hour and I just got out and I feel really relaxed. It just feels clear. It's a good thing. Like sitting there, meditating, trying not to try . . . it's therapeutic for me."

The truth is that Benevento is actually a pop formalist, albeit a sneaky one, and, for all his improvisational chops, a textural minimalist very much in the tradition of Brian Eno or Sigur Ros. Like those artists, the particular viruses he's interested in are melodies—usually no more than lullabies, simple analog jingles, and basic arpeggios—that burgeon and heave within those forms, replicating into smaller derivative themes or splintering into squalls of noise. Chaos and chance are the calling cards, but his songs are always accessible, and he's also a pleasantly thin cipher for the rock he's hearing. Set in a different context, "The Real Morning
 Party"—with its steadily whacked snare hits, sprinting
 hi-hat, and sweetly parabolic bridge—could’ve been a
 nifty Strokes vehicle. Likewise, "Are You the Favorite
 Person of Anyone?" wanders through a Radiohead haze, its 
elegant piano theme wrapped in a bed of quavering
 Mellotron, while "You Must Be a Lion" surprisingly swings
 with the barroom ease of Wilco or the Band.

How aware he is of those commonalities is a whole other matter. For example: While Benevento may not be the only white musician in Brooklyn who's never heard a Pavement album, he's certainly the only member of that minority who had Bryce Goggin (who mixed Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain) produce his last record. "I guess there are gaps," he shrugs happily. "Should I hear some Pavement? Is it awesome?"

 
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