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Published: 2009/02/22
by David Calarco

Searching for Yukon Gold With Marco Benevento

Strolling around Brooklyn with his daughter on a cool, crisp January day, Marco Benevento soaks his east coast home before hopping a plane California the next day. Preparing for month of west coast living, Benevento and his Trio are slated for an eight date run- four of them comprising a February residency at Oakland’s prestigious jazz club, “Yoshi’s.” With the release of his Trio’s second studio album in less than a year, the creation of his own record label, and gigs galore, Benevento has a lot on his plate these days- and he loves it.

One of the preeminent band leaders of the modern jazz-fusion era, Benevento has emerged as a brand unto himself. Via years of experience in the New York jazz scene and multiple residencies in the city, Benevento has transcended any of the groups he plays with, standing as an improvisational musical chameleon. Always eager for new challenges, Benevento recently took up the task of creating an album of interpretive covers, something he has always wanted to do. Collaborating with bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fed Jazz Odyssey) and drummers Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos) and Andrew Barr (The Slip,) Marco chose a series of songs that had been incorporated into the Trio’s live sets of 2008. With this newest effort, Benevento follows in a long-standing jazz tradition of merging interpretations of other artists into his own repertoire on Me Not Me

His second studio release in less than a year comes on the heels of his critically acclaimed LP, Invisible Baby. A series of interpretive covers with three originals sprinkled in, Me Not Me is a natural extension of his last album, focused on layered, dissonant sound-sculpting while his beautiful acoustic piano leads carry the melody. In selecting songs for the record, Benevento incorporated some of his favorite tunes into his own musical milieu. Featuring diverse artists such as My Morning Jacket, Deerhoof, Leonard Cohen, and Led Zeppelin, Benevento has created a smorgasbord of musical styles, all filtered through his progressive lens. “It’s like an interpretive mix tape,” Benevento joked.

Marco reflected on his much looser approach these songs. Because “the songs were already written, I didn’t have to consider altering the structures, but was able to focus on how I would interpret them.” Noting the fun of this process, he observed, “I didn’t realize this was gonna’ happen, but I got really heady with it and got crazy with layering and overdubbingI got really into this one.” Working with engineer Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Phish), their collaboration brought a new level complexity to Me Not Me, using sonic layering “as an underlying concept of the record.”

Benevento’s album is not just indicative of his popular music taste, but also reflects his experimentation with “all the crazy toys” he has at his house. Fond of “going into [his] Bat Cave and staying up until 3 am just messing around with different sounds,” Marco always seeks new ways to record and layer texture and tonal color. His solitary experiments translate quite effectively to his newly released album. Working with the editing process, as well as the recording process, has given Marco a taste of production, a facet he has enjoyed and foresees himself doing more of with his own work and that of others.

In conjunction with the release of his new album, Benevento has begun to bridge the gap between recording and production with the creation of his own record label, “The Royal Potato Family.” Marco reflected, “With Me Not Me, I was stepping into more of a producer / arranger role. I played the tunes and they were all there, but my job was more focused on getting all the sounds together and how it was all going to fit together.” Enamored by his collaboration with Goggin, Benevento predicts that he will step into this role a bit more. “Now I can think about adding textures and flavors to other folks’ musiceven a rock band. It could be a whole new area of work for me.” With his own umbrella to record divergent personal projects, Marco also thinks that his label could be “a conduit for other musicians as well.”

To kick off his live performances supporting Me Not Me, Benevento has locked down a residency at Yoshi’s, Oakland’s renowned jazz hot spot, utilizing three different line-ups over the four nights in February. The first two shows will be The Marco Benevento Trio with Mathis and Barr, while the third night will feature bassist, Devin Hoff, guitarist, Jeff Parker, and drummer, Scott Amedola. The most unique evening of the residency will be the last. Assembling Joe Russo, Peter Apfelbaum on sax, and Josh Roseman on trombone, Benevento put together “Quartet, The Killer,” to play the music of Bay Area native, Neil Young. East coast dates will follow as Benevento’s legacy continues to expand in today’s landscape of improvisational music.

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How did you come to the decision to release an album that is composed primarily of interpretive covers?

MB: I always wanted to do it. It goes back to when I first moved to New York and did all the jam sessions and played piano, learned a bunch of standards and came up with a couple popular tunes to play. I’ve played Leonard Cohen a lot back in 2000 with Brad Barr- just hanging out we played that tune a bunch. I’ve always had this thought in the back of my mind to do some sort of album with covers, or interpretations of covers- it happens a lot. As much as it’s not your music, it’s a tradition in music that happens a bunch, especially in jazz, but in pop music tooThen I was the Jam Cruise and Grace Potter was like, “I didn’t know “Golden.” I do that one too!” And I was like, really? Cool!” I’ve always wanted to do it, and I it’s just taken me this long to do it.

Why did you select these specific songs?

The reason why their on there is just because they are my favorite tunes. That’s really the only reason. These tunes had been working with The Trio on all the tours we’d been and they just hit me hard. I just love the tunes. And as you talk to people, I sort of noticed that it’s sort of a like a window into your head and what you’re thinking

How did playing the songs of others affect your approach to them?

It made me have a much looser feel about it because the tunes aren’t even mine. Not to say I didn’t think too much about it, but the tunes were already written so it wasn’t about “Do I change the bridge or do I change this section?” It was more like, “How would I interpret this?” It was really just a fun process. And I didn’t realize this was going to happen, but then I got really heady with it and got crazy with layering and overdubbing and it was a really fun thing. I got really into this one. Even Bryce [Goggin] said, “You’ve given me a lot to work with. This is definitely a step up form the last one.” And I was like, “Thank God!” I didn’t know if I was spiraling downward or what.

Yeah, I think it comes across quite well, and the diversity of artists that you chose speaks to your ability to make anything turns into something that sounds like it’s coming from you.

Yeah, it’s like a mix tape.

Yeah, like an interpretive mix tape. Were all of these songs that you chose songs you’d already played live, or were some of them brand new?

“Heartbeats” was the newest one. We only played it a couple times, but all the others we played live.

Did you personally think about how you wanted to arrange these songs for your trio? Or was it something that just happened while you were improvising?

The ending of “Golden,” for example was improvised in the studio, and I was like, “Wow! That’s cool!” That happened while we were recording that- that was improv and it’s really nice. I like how it gets all dark and weird at the end. And the song, “Now They’re Writing Music,” which is my reference to my circuit bent toys writing their own music now. That tune I did lots of rearranging, and did many edits of that one to see how that one would unfold. But for the most part it was all there- there were just little things that came up.

While listening to this album, I got the sense that you are taking sound-sculpting and the use of texture to another level while maintaining beautiful acoustic piano leads beneath it. How do you feel this album follows from Invisible Baby? Do you see this record as an extension of Invisible Baby, or do you see it as something all together different?

Yeah, totally! I definitely see it as an extension, especially because it was recorded so close to Invisible Baby’s release. Those tunes we were playing live while we were touring for Invisible Baby, so all the tunes were there. It was sort of like an immediate follow-up, and more deeply it was my understanding of all the crazy toys and stuff I have at my house- amps, mics, pro-tools and pickups- all the stuff I just collect. I like going into the “Batcave,” if my wife’s goes to bed and everybody’s crashed, and just stay up until 3 am just messing around with different sounds. It’s really quiet and you can really dial into some stuff- experiment with different ways of recording stuff and layering things. It’s really fun to do. And once you get faster at it, you realize how it can become like an instrument or an extension of yourself. You can do it so fast that you don’t flinch, that way you can really be slightly improvising while you are editing music and figuring out how to arrange stuff. So it’s really just a new thing that I’ve had some time to do, and I’ve gotten a bit quicker with it. I even worked on the Garage a Trois record too- we’ll probably release the record sometime soon, but I did a lot of editing and overdubbing of circuit bent toys and all sorts of stuff with them.

That leads me right into my next questions about your new label. When you were just talking about releasing Garage a Trois’ record, did you mean on your own label?

No. I don’t know what we are gonna’ do with that. But it is cool, Kevin Calabro and I are teaming up and gonna’ put it Me Not Me out on our own. And then consequently you think, as this one is at and selling well- maybe if some other artists we like wants to put out a record, maybe we can be a conduit for other people too, which is fun to think about. Because, and it all pretty much lines up very nicely and I’m just realizing this right now, with Me Not Me, I was stepping into more of a producer / arranger role. I played the tunes and they were all there, but my job, and the stuff I really worked on, was more focused getting all the sounds together and how it was all going to work.

I don’t know what it’s called, or under what umbrella it is- producer, arranger, engineer, or whatever. So, being that I did that with my own record, and stepped into that sort of role with Garage a Trois with a lot of their new tunes, now I can think about doing that and adding those textures and flavors to other folks. Say Nathan Moore or something or just anybody, like a rock band, would ask, “What can you do to this?” and I’ll add Oxygen [MIDI keyboard] loops and different sounds. It could be a whole new area of work for me, and it’s really fun to know how to do, because as a musician, you really need to get past that boundary of just knowing how to use the stuff. And quite honestly, sometimes that can be a drag. Its just not as fast as hitting a key on the piano. You can’t just hit a key on the computer, you gotta read the “Help” menu and all that.

What was it that inspired you to create your own label, “The Royal Potato Family?”

I think it was just realistically, if you can put something out on your own now, you may profit from it better, you know? Other labels will profit off of your record. If you can promote your record and tour around it and if you’ve put some records out before with other folks, it’s not as much of a risk, maybe? As opposed to somebody who’s never put out a record starting their own record label, which I’m sure people do.

So it was more of a financial thing than anything else?

Yeah. I mean, it’s also exciting starting a little business and then thinking that I can release other things, like maybe other people’s music. Now I have an umbrella to do projects under. It also makes you think: “Maybe I can just release an album of all circuit bent toys- like twenty tracks, all a minute and a half.”

And that would be the perfect way to do it.

And then one of the most important things is to have somebody on it as far as publicity goes. Kevin Calabro has just been the man in terms of hooking stuff up for me, and creating The Royal Potato Family, hoping that we find gold. (laughing)

What is, if any, the significance to the title?

Hoping we find some Yukon Gold. (laughing) The name came from a joke that Bob Dylan told Matt Chamberlain. You may have to ask him about that one.

Ok. Fair enough. So as you get ready to head west, how did this February residency at Yoshi’s develop?

Basically because my wife’s mom and dad were leaving for the month, and we thought why don’t we go house sit for the month? And you know, as I started to get some gigs, the whole residency came into play.

Did you organize all four nights and select all the different musicians?

Yes, I did. You know the last night was open for a long time, I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do on the last night. But I had the 10th and the 3rd set, and the 17th came about sort of last minute. I didn’t know who I was gonna play with locally so I was flying in all these people form NYC and all this shit. At some point I was like, “Who’s in San Francisco that I can play with?” (laughing) I’ve always wanted to play with (bassist) Devin Hoff and (drummer) Scott Amendola- that record they made with Nels Cline, The Giant Pin, is one of my most favorite records of all time. It’s a pretty bad-ass record. And then Jeff Parker came recommended by Scott Amendola. Anyway, that was Joe’s idea: “Quartet” the Killer. I asked him what he wanted to do and if he wanted to come out and do this gig. I told him that (saxophonist) Peter Apfelbaum and (trombonist) Josh Roseman were gonna be around, and he was like, “Alright, wellyeahsure, that would be a killer quartet. And I was like, “Yeah, Quartet the Killer!” And he just rolled off it and said “Yeah, we’ll do all the music of Neil Young!” And then I was like, “Oh my god! That is brilliant!” Joe had channeled something genius there.

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