Marco Benevento is not, at this time, a jazz musician. But he was. On his way to becoming the singing rock pianist he is today, the 39-year-old studied with Brad Mehldau and Joanne Brackeen and broke through playing organ and synths in the Benevento/Russo Duo, a jazz-rock project with drummer Joe Russo that crafted expandable music at once atmospheric and emotionally direct. Benevento has also collaborated with members of Phish; done time in an ensemble that performed the music of Miles’ Bitches Brew; and staged tributes to the late New Orleans pianist James Booker with two of Booker’s sidemen, bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich. Postbop beginnings, a pop present and plenty of opportunities for improvisation in between—a rich journey.
On a warm March morning in Brooklyn, before he was to perform with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, a five-piece that delivers the songs of Jerry Garcia and company, Benevento discussed tracks by everyone from Mehldau and Brackeen to Alice Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams. His new album, the live Woodstock Sessions, had been released a few weeks prior, and includes several instrumentals. They’re not jazz cuts, but there’s a spirit in them that many jazz fans will find familiar: catharsis and excitement through just keyboards, bass and drums.
1. Joanne Brackeen
“Fi-Fi’s Rock” (from Tring-A-Ling, Choice). Brackeen, piano; Clint Houston, bass; Billy Hart, drums. Recorded in 1977.
BEFORE: I really like the way the drummer and the pianist are playing together. Oh yeah. I don’t recognize the tune. It must be an original tune. It could be Jacky Terrasson and Terreon Gully, that record [A Paris…, on Blue Note] they [released in 2001]. I really liked that.
AFTER: I studied with Joanne for so long, and while I was listening to that, I thought, “Maybe it’s Joanne Brackeen,” because it’s really impressive. It reminds me of Chick Corea. Very inventive and the technique is incredible. The chops are there for days. Wow, that’s amazing it’s from 1977. That sounds very modern. It sounded like a hip new trio that plays at Smalls or whatever. Well, I love Joanne so much and I miss her. I haven’t seen her in a long time.
What’s the biggest thing you took away from studying with her?
The best thing about Joanne is that she nails your weaknesses right away, to the point where you feel like you’ve left yourself completely vulnerable and you almost feel like [makes a nervous sound]. You go from being so confident when you go see her to feeling like you don’t know anything, in about 30 seconds. ’Cause she’s just immediately like, “Now you need to work on your touch and your tone. It sounds like you didn’t practice at all.” So the greatest thing about Joanne is that she sort of kicks your ass. And when you’re 18 to 21, you need that. I mean, you need that all your life, but when you’re really, really studying and trying to get better—trying to get to that next notch—she really helps you get there.
2. John Medeski
“Out of This World” (from Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz With Guest John Medeski, Concord). Medeski, piano. Recorded in 2003.
BEFORE: Wow. There’s a little New Orleans in there. Jeez. This is insanely cool. It reminds me of my friend Brian Haas a little bit. I like the dynamic touches. The left hand is really impressive; I love the low [playing]. It sounds like an original tune. Jeez. Wow. The piano player’s completely crazy, and that’s OK with me. I can relate. [laughs] Wow. Yeah. I like the New Orleans fills and vibe about this piano player a lot. There’s a bit of a Monk element. Hmm. Wow. Amazing left hand. I’m really enjoying this. I don’t know who that is. I’m dying to know because I want to know if it’s somebody that I actually know the name of. I don’t know who that is.
AFTER: I’m totally inspired by John’s playing. When I first heard Medeski Martin & Wood in ’94 or ’95, I knew they were right at the modern edge of organ trios. I was like, “This is the sound that everyone’s gonna love.” Like, this is the new extension of this organ-trio groove thing. But a little psychedelic, like John’s playing. Wow, that was really, really great. Yeah, I love Medeski a lot. And I’ve played with Chris [Wood] and Billy [Martin], and I know those guys.
3. Alice Coltrane
“This Train” (from Translinear Light, Verve/Impulse!). Coltrane, Wurlitzer organ; Charlie Haden, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 2004.
BEFORE: It almost sounds like it could be Sun Ra or something. Is this some sort of American Songbook standard? This is super psychedelic and cool. I like it. And I love that he’s embracing the saxophone patch or whatever that is. Yes! Who would do something like this? I wanna say this is more of a modern recording too, 2000s or something. I love the undertone sustain comping. Wow. This is really cool.
AFTER: That’s cool to hear that rhythm section. That bass playing really, really drew me in there. I almost thought it was Larry Grenadier but I knew it wasn’t, ’cause I know Larry’s more modern tone and the way he sounds. But Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, I really was in a zone where I was just listening to the bass and drums and I couldn’t figure out who that was. It was really, really, really great. Wow, that was awesome. Thanks for playing that for me. That makes me want to check out more Alice.
4. James Booker
“On the Sunny Side of the Street” (from Junco Partner, Island). Booker, piano. Recorded in 1976.
BEFORE: [four seconds in] Oh, it sounds like James Booker. Hahaha! I know this! Yeah, OK. My man! [gives a high-five] I got one right. I can go on for days about James Booker.
When I first heard James Booker, I thought it was two people on the piano, because I was like, “How’s he doing these jumps with the left hand?” But then getting over that, you’re like, “OK.” But it’s just his feel. … If you try to learn James Booker from a book, you’re not doing it the right way. You have to try to imagine him playing piano. The only way you’re going to get his feel is to try to move like he moves. You have to listen and practice and try to get the feel, you know? He’s got such a swagger. I love Booker. He’s my guy.
Did James and Johnny shed any light on Booker? Did you learn anything from them about Booker?
[laughs] Oh God. Not only did I learn, I heard stories about what James would do at the Maple Leaf Bar [in New Orleans]. One of the most amazing stories I heard from Johnny was he was doing a gig with James and he fell on the floor. Something was wrong with him, I think he passed out or started going into convulsions or something like that. And they were watching him on the floor and Johnny put a drumstick in his mouth so he didn’t bite his tongue off. I mean, I don’t know how much of this stuff is true.
Or how much we can print…
No, I know. But every time Johnny talks about James he says how much of a genius he was and how into Chopin and classical music he was. And they also let me know that every night was different with him. I’ve done the James Booker thing with Johnny and James, and after every gig, they’re always like, “You know, you could stretch it out. You don’t have to do it like that. You could do other things.” So I think what we’re lucky to have on CD or records is great, because you’re capturing that moment, but I feel like he was a guy who changed it up all the time and would play different songs, different styles, different keys, different ways every time.
5. Thelonious Sphere Monk
“Consecutive Seconds” (from Monk’s Blues, Columbia). Monk, piano; Charlie Rouse; tenor saxophone; Larry Gales, bass; Ben Riley, drums; Oliver Nelson, big-band conduction, big-band arrangement. Recorded in 1968.
BEFORE: [one minute in] Oh. OK. I didn’t know that Monk did this. This is so cool. And funky. It’s like Austin Powers with Monk [laughs]. This is super funky and super cool; it reminds me of some Duke Ellington funky thing, but with Monk playing.
The Duo used to play “Bye-Ya,” right? So you go way back with Monk. What attracts you to Monk’s music or his style?
What definitely attracts me to Monk is there’s no one else that sounds like Monk. I feel like as a musician, you’re always searching for your own sound and wanting to be your own person and wanting people to know you by your own sound, and that’s what I love about Monk, that he has his own way of doing things. And that’s why everybody likes him, because he doesn’t sound like anybody else. He’s harmonically very inventive—it’s very Monk. There’s always curveballs in there. [laughs] That’s what I like about it. There’s traditional lines in there and whatnot, but there’s always this sort of Vreee!, curveball, big right turn. “Whoa! Who’s driving this thing?” All of a sudden, Boof! It just goes into the outer atmosphere and you’re like, “Yep, that’s Monk.”
6. Brad Mehldau
“Lithium” (from Live in Marciac, Nonesuch). Mehldau, piano; Kurt Cobain, songwriter. Recorded in 2006.
BEFORE: I’m a huge Mehldau fan. You know, slight problem. I would always go see him at the Vanguard, always hang out until the end of the night, always talk to Larry and Jorge [Rossy]. And my girlfriend at the time knew that I was completely obsessed with him, and just was really into his playing, and made me practice all the time. Made me study with Joanne all the time. That’s what I wanted to do—I wanted to have a jazz trio and play the Vanguard and do the modern thing. That was my goal.
It’s not too late.
No, it’s not too late. No, absolutely. … And I actually have his number now, and I texted him a picture of my touring piano rig that I have, that little 61-note upright piano with all the guitar pedals. I was like, “This is what I’m touring with now.” And he was like, “What?! I’d love for you to show me around that thing. That looks amazing.”
7. Page McConnell
“Yakima” (from Unsung Cities and Movies Never Made, Keyed). McConnell, organ, piano; Adam Zimmon, guitar; Reed Mathis, bass; Gabe Jarrett, drums. Released in 2013.
BEFORE: It sounds almost like a Phish-related thing. Like the guy Ray [Paczkowski]. Almost sounds like Stanton [Moore] on drums. There’s almost a Medeski element to the organ playing, but you definitely know it’s not him. It sounds like a jam project. Is it Ray? There’s a Phish song that sounds like this, “Cars, Trucks and Buses.”
AFTER: We’ve hung out a bunch. I’ve gone to his house and we’ve actually recorded, just the two of us, on synthesizers.
Ooh, that should come out.
Yeah. I might even have some of it on my computer. We were talking about releasing a record, a very abstract, atmospheric synth record. We just got together in Burlington a couple of times and recorded. This is a long time ago, but we had a name for our band and everything. We had a name for the project and a name for the songs, even. Yeah, I really like Page. Page is a really great guy to hang out with and an incredible player. He has some amazing synths at his place and is very open to experimenting. I think Page is a great player. He’s most well known for his stuff with Phish, which is almost classic-rock stuff. But he’s really cool. And I got into Phish when I was in high school.
8. Shirley Scott
“Messie Bessie” (from Something, Atlantic). Scott, organ; Billy Butler, Eric Gale, guitars; Chuck Rainey, bass; Jimmy Johnson, drums; Ralph MacDonald, congas. Recorded in 1970.
BEFORE: I feel like I’ve heard this before. I love the organ. My parents got me a Hammond when I was 15 or 16, because I wouldn’t stop talking about one. They found a little want-ad cutout in my drawer when I went away to music camp, and when I came home from camp, the organ was sitting in my living room. My birthday had passed in that week that I was gone. And so I got deep in the Jimmy Smith records. All the soul, organ-jazz stuff. But I gotta say I couldn’t tell you if it’s Jimmy McGriff or Jack McDuff; I’m not that well versed in the organ category. Is it Dr. Lonnie Smith?
AFTER: I don’t know that much about Shirley Scott, but when I do hear her on the radio, I’m always like, “Oh man, I gotta check more of her out.” Because I just know the dudes. I don’t know Shirley. She’s awesome. I really liked that a lot.
9. Miles Davis
“John McLaughlin” (from Bitches Brew, Columbia). Bennie Maupin, bass clarinet; John McLaughlin, guitar; Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, electric piano; Dave Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White, drums; Don Alias, congas; Juma Santos, shaker. Recorded in 1969.
BEFORE: Yeah. This is Bitches Brew. So that’s Chick or Keith [Jarrett]? Chick, Keith and Larry [Young].
Chick in the right channel and Zawinul in the left. So I guess this was a little too easy, but I wanted to jog your memory about the Bitches Brew Revisited band. I wanted to know if you had any insight and wanted to talk a little about Bitches Brew or playing that music.
The coolest thing about it was that I got a chance to play with Cindy Blackman [Santana], and Roy Haynes’ son Graham was playing cornet, and Melvin Gibbs was playing bass. The lineup was insane. I didn’t know those guys personally at all before doing that project, but I got to know them.
We went to France and played some festivals. I liked it. I feel like a lot of the Bitches Brew stuff was edited by Teo, so it was a lot of improvisations that they chopped up and turned into songs. It’s really cool.
I remember going to Berklee College of Music when I was 18 and listening to Bitches Brew like every day. That cross between funk and rock and impressive jazz playing, fused together [using] really cool instruments—bass clarinet, Rhodes, organ. I love Emergency!, the Tony Williams Lifetime stuff; I love that non-traditional approach to jazz. Jazz was changing around this time; Miles was into Sly and the Family Stone, Woodstock was happening. I love that jazz took this psychedelic left turn.
10. Mary Lou Williams
“Rosa Mae” (from Zoning, Mary). Williams, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1974.
BEFORE: Almost sounds like Betty Davis. Hmm. Huh. Hearing the rhythm section made me think it was an early recording, then hearing this piano, I’m like, “Maybe this is a more modern recording.” Whoa, this is awesome. I love the minimalistic thing.
AFTER: Her feel was incredible. There were these incredible, almost slow rhythmic fills that she was doing. I really love that the rhythm section just sort of stayed there. The vibe was there, and she just touched in and out. Really, really tasty riffs and blues. It all sounded very bluesy and groovy and funky or whatever, but it wasn’t overdone, and that’s what I really like about it.
At no point did it explode and all of a sudden you’re like, “Whoa, that’s Chick Corea!” She really just maintained this super-cool atmosphere or color the whole time, and I really liked that.