By Michael Lello
Of all the eclectic sounds on Marco Benevento’s albums, there was one thing you were guaranteed not to hear: vocals.
That changed, however, the keyboardist said, when he was writing “This Is How It Goes” for his latest album, 2012’s “TigerFace.”
“‘This Is How It Goes’ was the first step to adding lyrics to my music,” Benevento said, explaining he started hearing syllables in his head along with the melody. He penned lyrics, then brought in Kalmia Traver from the band Rubblebucket to sing them. Traver went on to write the melody and lyrics to “Limbs Of A Pine,” which ended up as the album opener.
While Benevento – who will return to the River Street Jazz Café on Friday, Nov. 15 as part the venue’s 20th anniversary weekend – up until then had made a career out of writing compelling instrumental songs that seem to have a lyrical flow, he said, somewhat surprisingly, that he does not have an overall theme or arc he’s trying to convey when he composes.
“Generally, I don’t have to do anything. The songs and chord progressions convey their own thing,” he explained. “Certain chords have their own mood.”
Benevento, who gained notice alongside drummer Joe Russo in the Benevento Russo Duo, said his live sets are a mix of structured songs and more open-ended improvisations.
“Lots of songs are pretty close to the album version,” he said. “‘This Is How It Goes’ (live) is pretty much the same as the instrumental version at the end of the album. . . . Some songs lend themselves to more freedom and jamming. Some you want to convey as songs. I think most bands would say the same thing.”
As a figure in New York City’s avant garde music scene since the 1990s, Benevento has pushed the confines of rock and jazz, working with effects, loops and circuit bent toys. Despite the experimental approach heard in concert and on his albums – which in addition to “TigerFace” include 2008’s “Invisible Baby,” 2009’s “Me Not Me” and 2010’s “Between The Needles And Nightfall” – Benevento still values traditional piano and said he practices frequently and listens to classic players like McCoy Tyner.
Working on album five “is a big thing for me right now” Benevento said, adding that not only will it again include vocals, but for the first time feature his vocals. He said he and his band are testing out some of the new material on the current tour.
On Wednesday Nov. 27, Benevento will take part in “The Complete Last Waltz,” a tribute to the 1976 classic show by The Band and accompanying Martin Scorcese film. He’ll be joined by Nels Cline of Wilco, Russo, Cass McCombs, Jeff Chimenti of Ratdog and others. The concert, at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., is a reprise of last year’s event at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. Rolling Stone called Benevento’s take on Dr. John’s “Such A Night” at the 2012 affair “hair-raising.”
“I grew up on that stuff, so to be pulled into it now is really cool,” Benevento said. “You’ve heard this stuff a million times, now why don’t you try and do it yourself in front of thousands of people? It does really well. A lot of people come out to the shows, and special guests include Nels Cline from Wilco, and I forget the guy’s name from Dr. Dog (Scott McMicken). So there’s some more well-known names in that project as well that help the attendance.”
Benevento’s role in the core group is as Garth Hudson, The Band’s mad scientist of the organ.
“I would say first and foremost his choice of sounds,” Benevento said when asked about particular elements of Hudson’s musicianship that stand out. “He throws curveballs in there. First of all, he doesn’t play a Hammond, he plays a Lowery organ, and the Lowery he plays has this pitch-bending capability, so you’ll hear this weird bending organ on some songs. It totally works and it’s so awesome, but it’s not traditionally what you’d do. That’s what I like about him.
“Same thing with his sort of fake synthesized strings sounds here and there and his incredible clavinet playing. Just the sort of different approach. That’s what I really take from Garth.”