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New Groove

Published: 2004/01/28
by Dan Alford

Benevento Russo Duo

"Abduction Pose," the opening track on the Benevento
Russo Duo’s 2003 live album Darts, begins with cultish
voices from Heaven’s Gate, ambient blips and a relaxed
drumbeat. As the beat hesitates and resettles, the
other sounds pool and create the foundation for a new,
heavy bass line. The composition is constructed
before your ears, piece by piece, but it is just as
easy to get lost the song’s easy buzz as it is to
notice the subtleties. It is nearly four minutes
before the tune’s sinister, brooding theme creeps in,
and the song is fully realized.
"It’s a think piece, really," jokes drummer Joe Russo. "It’s about a guy on the roof waiting for the aliens,"
returns keyboardist Marco Benevento. "Too much
Despite the lighthearted joking, and make no mistake
that free form capering is at the very core of The Duo
and their music, there is a real weight to the sounds
as well. As the boundaries of "Abduction Pose’s"
broad middle passage are pushed even wider by an array
of bubbling organ washes, the serious artistry at play
becomes evident. The slick, swinging drums mesh
perfectly with the low warmth of B-3 bass, forming a
dense musical terrain just right for a lengthy organ
solo. It’s amazing that only two people are at work
creating such a rich and refined sound.
Of course, members of the East Coast jamband and
groove communities are well aware of The Duo’s
prowess. It’s fair to say that there is no hotter
club-sized band on the scene right now. From an
ever-growing fan base, to the hoards of late night
revelers first exposed to Marco and Joe on the summer
festival circuit, to the legion of musicians who flock
to their shows, The Duo wins attention and accolades
from all angles. With roots in groove and free jazz,
their music and performances glisten with something
fresh and bright, something truly appealing. "It’s a
different thing," says Russo. "We definitely have the
groove aspect, but initially the first thing people
see is two people on stage, which is a cool thing. We
get a lot of comments on the interactions that we have
on stage, even just visually. People get off on
seeing us having a good time. It’s a cool thing, and
that is just the visual part. People also dig how
much sound comes out of two people." Those
interactions between Marco and Joe are the key.
Laughter, shouts and howls abound as the two musicians
stare each other down on stage, the B-3 and kit
positioned so close to each other that it is not
unusual for Joe to reach over and tweak the organ
effects, or for Marco to take a jab at the cymbals.
That closeness and comfort translates into the music
as well, so that the pair can, and often do, change
tempo and rhythm structures at the drop of a hat, or
leap into any number of song references and teases
with abandon. They can read each other so well that
improvised starts and stops and breakdowns come across
as if they were composed. Even in conversation they
finish each other’s thoughts:
Marco: "When we play."
Joe: ". there’s a lot of genuine interplay."
Marco: ". it’s really relaxed."
Joe: ". which is a different thing I’d say. We
definitely have songs, but within those songs there is
always something else going on."
Marco: ".because we’re so comfortable with the songs
and each other."
The pair has known each other since middle school,
although high school led them down separate paths. "I
think we saw each other twice between middle school
and the first time Marco called me to do a gig." In
the interim, Joe played in the wild fusion experiment
known as Fat Mama, the ensemble that won the first
ever New Groove Jammy in 2000. Meanwhile, Marco
attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I
played with a bunch of people up here. It’s where I
met Bard and Andrew Barr and Marc Friedman (aka The
Slip), and Geoff Scott and Leslie Helpert. And then I
formed a band called the Jazz Farmers."
In 2002 Joe was offered a residency at The Knitting
Factory’s Tap Bar in New York City and enlisted his
old friend for help. "[Jake Szufnarowski] offered us
every Thursday and we decided to just bring the organ
down, because it only paid a hundred bucks. So we
could make fifty bucks each." The gig of convenience
quickly began to show its true potential as word of
The Duo spread and drew the attention of "Kraz and
E.D. Coomes, Justin Wallace, a lot of horns players
and local cats." In short order the pair landed a
slot at High Sierra and many additional gigs. *
"We have a lot of freedom that most bands don’t have,"
comments Joe. "You don’t have to worry about anybody
else except the cat that’s right in front of you. You
can really do whatever at that given point, because
you’re not worried about someone missing a cue. We
just have a lot of freedom as opposed to other bands
that are more confined because they have more members
or have more set compositions. We have the freedom to
go wherever the hell we want." That freedom is
expressed in myriad ways; in compositions ripe for
interpretation, such as ‘Mephisto,’ which might be
five minutes long one night and seventeen minutes the
following evening; or in truly spontaneous creations,
such as "Ambiguously?" the fourth song on Darts, which
Marco admits is "an improv that we named." Be that as
it may, the twelve minute piece is dramatic and
cohesive. Shiny cymbals, B-3 puddles and tight
clusters of bass all stir together to create an
infectious organ ride over a club inspired dance
groove. That ability to engage in spontaneous
composition is part of The Duo’s appeal to other
musicians. To date, the pair has hosted Sam Kininger,
Jay Rodriguez, Will Bernard, Cheme Gastelum, Jessica
Lurie, Mike Dillon, Eric Krasno, Stanton Moore,
Skerik, Brad Barr (who appears on a hidden cover of
Led Zeppelin’s "What Is and What Should Never Be" on
Darts), Andrew Barr, Reed Mathis, Karl Denson, DJ
Logic, Scott Metzger, Mike Gordon and the ubiquitous
Warren Haynes, among many others. In fact, Marco and
Joe are spotlighted on Sam Kininger’s debut release
Sam Kininger, where they join the alto player for "Big
Whopper," which is also the second track on Darts.
"It’s a jambands standard, dude," jokes Joe. "Sam
Kininger plays it. Robert Walter plays it." (Joe
played his last gig as the Greyboy keyboardist’s
drummer early in 2004.)
They are also paired with Jay Rodriguez on his double
disc release Jay Rodriguez: 3/7/2003 on Kufala
records. The album recorded at The Fez in New York
City features the trio on a number of tunes penned the
founding member of the Groove Collective, as well as a
cover of "Pure Imagination" from Willie Wonka and
versions of "Darts" and "Abduction Pose." It is
easily the most underrated, and possibly best, release
of 2003, or as Joe puts it, "fucking great!"
A third collaboration that has done much to cement The
Duo’s reputation over the last six months is based in
their eclectic mix of cover songs. Playing everything
from Monk to Radiohead, from Simon and Garfunkle to
the Whites Stripes, The Duo have made their open
interpretations of popular music and classic tunes a
staple of their performances. In August of 2003,
Marco and Joe were presented with a project pairing
them with RANA guitarist Scott Metzger for a set of
Led Zeppelin material. "It was crazy because Scott is
a rock god, so we figured he must know all this
Zeppelin, but then he calls us. ‘Hey man, could you
give me some music, because I never went through a
Zeppelin phase.’ Marco and I get off the phone
thinking, ‘Is this gonna suck?’ But when we had a
rehearsal, he just destroyed it. Anyone who has heard
that knows, Metzger is the king! He just nailed it
and he’s so into it now." The trio has twice reprised
the act, in Brooklyn on January 10, and just a week
later at the beginning of a residency at Tribeca in
New York. "Y’know, it’s crowd pleasing," says Marco.
"It’s like we’re a cover band, so there is an aspect
of it that’s not so goal oriented, but it’s so much
fun. Especially on a Friday night at midnight when
every body is ready to party." Again, it is this
balance of fun and musical mastery, a sense for
spectacle and serious sounds that forms The Duo’s

Beginning their third year, The Duo are in the midst
of a three city residency (Tuesdays in Boston,
Thursdays in Philadelphia and Fridays in New York) in
preparation for their first major cross country tour,
which includes dates in Colorado, Oregon and a stop at
their stomping ground’s alter ego, The Knitting
Factory in Hollywood. They will appear at High Sierra
for the third year in a row, as well as at other
festivals, and are at work on a new studio album. For
more on the Benevento Russo Duo, including detailed
tour information, as an SHN download at or to obtain a copy of Darts visit Jay Rodriguez, featuring The Duo, is available as an SHN download at

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