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During his long break from the road due to the pandemic, Marco Benevento didn’t just sit at home and twiddle his thumbs. Instead, the keyboardist stepped outside into his cramped studio on his nine-acre Woodstock, New York, home and, on his own, developed a jazz/rock solo affair of rambunctious and off-kilter experimentation. It’s richly riveting and ebullient.
The simply titled Benevento (Royal Potato Family) serves as his liberating sonic playground with a collection of in-need-of-dusting studio toys, including tape machines, old microphones, old mic preamps, a drum set, vintage analog equipment and multiple keyboards such as a Mellotron, Moog synthesizer, a classic piano and Voyager, Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Clavinet keyboards.
He calls the outcome of his deep walk through polyrhythmic grooves, electrifying self-jams, West Africa-derived dance music, songs based on poetry and short lyrical ditties his “small batch psychedelia,” describing the creation as totally “home brew.”
Since moving upstate from New York City in 2011, Benevento used his 20-by-40-foot space (nicknamed the Inspiration Station by friends) as his home base for composing and then passing off demos to whomever he was working with in various bands to add the finesse. This time it was different. “I was making all the magic happen by myself,“ he said. “I stuck with it, and then one day realized this may be the real record. I’m glad it’s out there because it’s a snapshot of my world at that time. I played everything on my four-track tape recorder. It’s loose, with some songs that sound like they’re unfinished, short interludes and then instrumental music that is structural. In some ways this album is like going back to my roots.”
Benevento comes from a full jazz background, having attended Berklee College of Music and studied with Joanne Brackeen, Brad Mehldau and Kenny Werner. “I was deep into classic jazz, and all I was shooting for was to form a jazz trio,” he said. “But that evolved over time. I discovered the sound of playing the acoustic piano through an amplifier one day and then added a distortion pedal and a delay.” A forward thinker, Benevento started to explore jam rock and indie pop in the mix.
His trio of bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Matt Chamberlain scored some impressive gigs, including the Newport Jazz Festival and opening for Jamie Cullum at Carnegie Hall. After that show, the band was approached by an A&R talent scout from Verve who was interested in recording them for the label.
“We were invited into the Verve office, where we could take home any of the label’s music,” Benevento said with a laugh. “Wow, Verve was going to record our third album. That gave us a lot of confidence that we were doing something right. But then, everything went silent.” His manager, Kevin Calabro, freaked out because he had already booked a tour and he wanted albums to sell. So, in 2009, the pair decided to form their own label, Royal Potato Family, and release Me Not Me — the beginning of a long string of adventurous Benevento albums, as well as a roster expansion of a range of music from fringe jazz to calming folk.
On Benevento, the lone cat enlisted his San Diego poet friend Al Howard to send him poems that found their way into the vocal songs. It was a family affair, with Benevento’s wife and their two young girls singing backup. On selected tunes, he linked up with master percussionist Mamadouba “Mimo” Camara, who works at the progressive Woodstock Day School that his kids attend. The pair catches fire on “Marco And Mimo,” where daughter Ruby joins in.
Spontaneity ruled. Benevento’s improvised tunes include “The Warm Up,” which features a dazzling piano run.
“I just went into the studio, started the drum machine, sat down and warmed up, got my fingers moving,” he said. “Then I discovered I had come up with pretty cool, free music just noodling around.”
Another shorty is the playful “Polysix,” which Benevento says is the name of his go-to keyboard: “It’s just a 30-second interlude of a little ditty that was stuck in my head.” Then there’s the opener, the loud and catchy “Like Me” that he says is pretty much “an unfinished song.”
The structured compositions include the pop-ish “At The End Or The Beginning,” which has an African dance vibe. That’s influenced by Benevento’s fascination with the sounds of West African pop titans Francis Bebey, the electronic Cameroon composer whose synth guitar explores the makossa dance rhythm; Kiki Ghani, a keyboardist from Ghani who’s famous for his disco funk; and William Onyeabor, the late legendary Nigerian funk star that David Byrne champions.
“I’m a vinyl collector, and I have a huge collection,” Benevento said. “My world was blown open when I found this music with its repetitious grooves and synthesizer solos. They remind me of all the music that I love. It’s my go-to music when I wake up in the morning. In my own twisted way, after I broke down what they were doing, I thought, ‘I can make songs like this.’ So ‘Marco And Mimo’ is my version of a Francis Bebey song. And some of the other experimental stuff reminds me of the vibes from those guys.”
One of Benevento’s friends says his project reminded him of the first Paul McCartney DIY album, simply titled McCartney, where the former Beatle played all the instruments and recorded in a rural setting. That resonated with Benevento. “I have 20 or 30 more pieces that I plan to put out,” he says. “So, I might do what Paul did on his two other solo albums. My next release will be Benevento II.”
As for No. 1, it’s the last album he recorded in his cramped studio. “I was in that studio for 10 years and had some good experiences,” he said. “I’ve moved into a bigger studio: my three-car garage that had been used for storage. It has a 10-foot high ceiling, heat, reclaimed barnwood on the walls, concrete floors. It’s a gold mine of space.” DB
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