Near the end of the Benevento Russo Duo’s roiling second set at Rothko, Marco Benevento announced that the gritty barn burner they’d just played was based on an improvisation by pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Matt Chamberlain—”my heroes, my lovers,” the keyboardist called them. A step back to when organists held down the low end (Benevento’s left hand), the Duo are the happeningest manifestation of a trend that began with Medeski Martin & Wood’s urban-jungle boogie and has inspired such keyboard-led threesomes as the OM Trio, Vorcza, and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. This wave plays looser, scruffier, funkier, and more electrified forms of the sort of rock-influenced chamber jazz triage dealt by the Mehldau, e.s.t., and the Bad Plus.
New Jersey soul mates who met in their middle school jazz band, Benevento and Russo perch directly across from one another, lock eyes, and perform music of intense physicality and almost flirtatious intimacy. Benevento tend to play slightly ahead of the beat, lending their jazzy, jammy urban boogaloo an anxious, urgent undercurrent. Their first set included “Becky” (music for a mechanical bride), “9X9” (an Afrotronic meditation in 10/8), and other tunes from their excellent Best Reason to Buy the Sun, and was something of a wash thanks to the chattering class.
Their second set, though, was closer to shattering glass. The pair played loud and freely before gliding into “The Three Question Marks,” one of Sun‘s more intricately crunchy tunes. Their readings of Elliott Smith’s “Waltz #1” and Radiohead’s “Myxomatosis” are less facile crowd-pleasers than opportunities for muscular remixtures. Benevento’s palate ranges from jazz piano to ultrafuzz guitar sounds, while Russo swings as hard as he pounds—he dances with his drums, then takes them home to enjoy his etchings and a post-coital smoke. A stripped-down punk rock version of a keyboard trio on the one hand (they’ve jammed to Bad Brains material elsewhere), Benevento and Russo also echo something closer to the Eastern model of a soloist and drummer sharing an evening’s séance together. A case of less is more? More or less.