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If Marco Benevento hadn't needed to take a leak so badly, the fascinating instrumental combo known as the Benevento Russo Duo might never have existed.
Benevento, who specializes in the Hammond B-3 and other keyboards, and Joe Russo, a wonderfully colorful drummer, grew up in the same New Jersey town and began making music together as seventh-graders. They attended different high schools, though, and after graduation, Russo moved to Boulder, where he was part of Fat Mama, one of the city's better bands circa the '90s. Benevento, meanwhile, studied at the Berklee College of Music with jazz heavyweights such as Joanne Brackeen and Brad Mehldau before heading to New York City to test himself alongside NYC's top talents. He was beginning to make a name for himself when he took a night off to catch Medeski Martin & Wood at Tonic nightclub — and as he waited in line outside, nature made a call with unexpected repercussions.
"I had to pee," Benevento recalls. "I'd been drinking a ton of beer. So I ran across the street to the Delancey Lounge — ran downstairs to go to the bathroom. And I ran into this guy I knew from Berklee. I was like, 'Hey! What are you doing here?' And he said, 'I'm playing downstairs with somebody you know, I think. Joe Russo?' And I was like, 'Holy shit! I haven't seen him in six years.'"
Following this un-likely reunion, the pair began gigging together in assorted configurations until Russo landed a regular Thursday-night show at the Knitting Factory, among Manhattan's top avant-garde haunts. Because the pay was so modest, he and Benevento decided not to invite other jazzbos to join them — and the unique sound they developed quickly turned heads. At first the music was purely improvisational, but during several years of touring, Benevento says, "we really got into writing songs and sort of just naturally morphed into an instrumental-rock band, almost abandoning the experimental downtown New York thing. We were in the indie-rock scene, almost, which was pretty cool."
Today, albums such as 2006's first-rate Play Pause Stop have won the Duo fans such as Phish's Mike Gordon and the members of Ween, who guest on Benevento's new solo disc, Live at Tonic. The three-CD set, cut at the same venue where he'd been waiting shortly before encountering Russo again, is extraordinarily eclectic; one disc features covers of songs by Pink Floyd and Benny Goodman. Not that this range seems unusual to Benevento. "Whether it's going to be jazzy or jammy or rock or experimental according to other people," he says, "it's just music to me."
And to think, Benevento's entire career might have turned out differently if it wasn't for his bladder.
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