In the wild world of underground instrumental music, Marco Benevento is a newcomer as a leader, but he’s no stranger to the scene. The thirty-year old Berklee School of Music grad studied jazz piano under Joanne Brackeen, Kenny Werner and Brad Mehldau and set up shop in New York City seven years ago cultivating credibility gigging there.
Eventually, he settled into a duo format with high school buddy drummer Joe Russo and the two cut four albums together. In 2006, they formed part of phormer Phish leader Trey Anastasio’s tour band. The following year, Benevento finally debuted as a solo artist with his sprawling, three-CD live document Live At Tonic.
Which brings us to the present. This month, with Invisible Baby, Benevento debuts in the more customary sense: a studio album with all selections written by Benevento himself.
None of what has been recounted thus far says much about what kind of music Benevento plays, at least for the album being discussed, here. That’s the tough part about writing this review.
Benevento’s signature sound, at least on Invisible Baby, is familiar, yet nearly impossible to pin down. Since it’s all instrumental with some quality chops being displayed, there’s the temptation to call it “jazz,” but that doesn’t do his music any proper justice. I first listened to this record with a jazz ear and found it lacking. You can find signs of Mehldau’s strong melodic sense, for instance, but little of his cerebral improvising. The songs stubbornly don’t swing. The chords played usually aren’t jazz chords.
Benevento is fond of conjuring up an ostinato, adorning it with some electronic effects laid upon a bedrock of piano, then going several rounds with it before switching over to a different repeating figure. A key to making it succeed is that these vintage-sounding electronics, which he calls “circuit bent toys” — a homemade array of effects pedals — provide a sideshow to the tunes without taking center stage away from his substantial piano.
The other primary ingredient is that these songs are rock in spirit, tone and rhythm. Some people would call all this post-rock.
The leader is accompanied on this record by bassist Reed Mathis (whose band, The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, will be profiled on this space in the near future) and drummer Matt Chamberlain, the first call session drummer who made that wonderful Floratone record with Bill Frisell last year.
Your sense of musical conventions for rock is challenged by Benevento right from the get-go with “Bus Ride,” which employs a lumbering but powerful beat, a fuzzed-out bass, a mellotron and banjo(!). The piano and the thematic lines expounded from it make up the focal point of the song, however.
Andrew Barr sits in for Chamberlain on three cuts, including the gently meditative “Record Book” and another ballad tune, the waltzing dedication to Benevento’s young daughter, “Ruby.” On both of these selections, Benevento reveals a real strong knack for constructing gorgeous melodies that are marked by gradually building crescendos.
Chamberlain himself does some nifty work on the kit for “Atari,” effortlessly syncopating the strong beat. He nimbly slides between two time signatures on “You Must Be A Lion,” which is such a deadgummed good tune in a Radiohead kind of way that it deserves some lyrics so it could get some radio play.
This risk with relying on electronic gimmicks, of course, is that the music becomes too gimmicky, and Benevento has a propensity to lead off almost every tune with some superfluous shtick of that nature. The songs become markedly better once the gadgety sounds get out of the way, which tends to highlight further how little they add to the songs to begin with.
Invisible Baby does do a nice job overall of presenting the quirky but tuneful songs of an up-and-coming talent. Those who enjoy rock side of The Bad Plus or Umphrey’s McGee, might find some common ground with Benevento’s brand of instrumental vibes. Even George Winston fans can connect to this. His first proper release holds the promise of even greater things to come. Had Benevento put away his circuit bent toys for a little more of Baby, though, he would already have a bonafide winner on his hands.
Invisible Baby became commercially available to the public on February 12.