Marco Benevento on his latest album, circuit bent toys and Brad Mehldau

As half of the Benevento-Russo Duo, Marco Benevento played bass lines with his feet and held down organ and Wurlitzer parts with separate hands. But in the trio format, he's completely at home behind the piano, which he says is totally his ax. The forward-thinking Benevento makes captivating music by putting guitar pick-ups in a piano, using effects, samples, circuit-bent toys and loops. On his latest effort, the excellent Between the Needles & Nightfall, Benevento continues to have one foot in the rock realm and the other in the improvisatory jazz world while exploring new sonic territory, some of which was inspired by Krautrock pioneers Can.

In advance of his two-night stint at Dazzle this week -- on Thursday, August 12, and Friday, August 13 -- we spoke with the pianist about his latest effort, his use of effects and his eye-opening afternoon with fellow jazz pianist Brad Mehldau.

Westword (Jon Solomon): Tell me about the new album. I know you wrote some of the stuff while you were recording it, right?

Marco Benevento: "Greenpoint" and "RISD" are two songs we've just been playing for a while live. Those songs are sort of easy tunes to put together. They're just sort of open jam tunes, sort of like one groove looped -- very much inspired by this band called Can.

The song "Between the Needles and Nightfall" was pretty much an improvisation that was recorded, that I then sort of arranged and told it to the guys, and we sort of figured it out in the studio.

For the most part, the songs were sort of there before we went in the studio, except for about three of them. "Snow Lake" was an improvisation that we did that I cut up and played bass over, and there's also some weird, wacky stuff in there. I wasn't slaving over the music. It was supposed to be an easy record to listen to, almost to make you forget that you're listening to it.

WW: Going back to the tune that was improvisation and that you cut up later -- that's kind of like what Can did, right?

MB: Yeah, exactly. It was really fun.

WW: Have you worked that way in the studio before, where you just improv and then edit things later?

MB:Not enough. Mostly when we go into the studio, we have songs and we have an album that we are conceiving of and conceptualizing about. I always wanted it to be sort of a looser thing in some situations. I'm finally glad I was able to have this looser feeling in the studio for three days instead of not worrying about too much. But some songs we knew and we wanted to pull off good takes, so we had that side of things, too. We had a nice balance of both worlds, of fucking around with shit that we'd already written.

WW: Had you been playing a lot of these tunes on the road before you went into the studio?

MB: Yeah, "Greenpoint" and "Numbers," we played them a couple of times over the year. A couple tunes got road tested and were all there. Like I said before, three or four of them were made up in the stiudio.

WW: Was "Greenpoint" inspired by that section of Brooklyn?

MB: No, a friend of mine named it "Greenpoint" because I recorded a version of it in Greenpoint. It was this guy who used to play guitar in the B-52s. His name was Pat Irwin. He hired me for a session, and I played Greenpoint, my version of it back then, and he just decided to call it "Greenpoint," since we recorded in Greenpoint. I was like, "Oh I have to change the name," but I just stuck with it.

WW: How different is jamming with the trio versus playing with Russo in the duo?

MB:Oh, man, it's a whole other thing for me, because I get to play piano versus foot bass lines and left-hand organ parts and right-hand Wurlizter parts. The piano is totally my ax. So it's nice to be behind the hammer-action instrument. The difference is the trio is more...I don't know what it is. But maybe it's not as bombastic or something, and the duo is pretty heavy. The trio is a little...not heavy, but sometimes it can get heavy. I guess just natural volume, even though running it through effects sort of makes it a little quieter.

WW: Will you be rigging up the piano with guitar pick-ups at your Dazzle gigs?

MB: Yeah, I'll have the piano rigged up with amps through guitar pick-ups. I've been enjoying all the other sounds that can work with the trio, even though it's a piano, bass and drum band; there's Optigan sounds and Mellotron sounds and other drum loops, circuit-bent toy sounds -- all sorts of weird things we're playing along to, so easily mistaken as jazz.

It's also not really like traditional rock. So it's sort of right there in between. It's not fusion, either, because some people think it's fusion. No, it's more like instrumental piano rock, basically. Sort of traditional jazz elements, but more of a backbeat and more of a louder sort of environment.

WW: When you were talking about Optigan sounds and Mellotron sounds, have you sampled those instruments?

MB:I have an Optigan and a whole bunch of other keyboards. I played a bunch, and I made my own samples. I've been making my own samples of my own instruments, basically. An Optigan would be a disaster on the road, as would a Mellotron. I only use them for some parts. It's fun to test the trio's limits and see if we can play along to rhythms and loops with instrument sounds. It seeps in here and there.

But some people find it to be distracting if we're playing more of a traditional jazz room. They're like, "What was that backing track you were playing along to?" Or, "What were all those other sounds happening?" But at the same time, you get a handful of people, mainly younger people, who are like, "I like all of those other sounds that were in there." It sort of depends on how it sounds in the room.

WW:How important are effects and circuit-bent toys to your sound these days?

MB: I got into circuit-bent toys in 2005 through a friend in Chicago named Tom Stevenson. He came to a Duo show, and he showed Joe and I a bunch of toys, and we both fell in love with them. I gave him some money for a Speak & Read, and ever since, he's been showing up at shows and giving me toys.

He's doing some really cool stuff with all these keyboards that have really nice, crazy tones, that sound great through amps. It sort of adds some color to the acoustic element of the piano, bass and drum sound. It's like this electronic, colorful ear-candy kind of sound to the band.

WW: It seems like that -- and all the effects and loops and whatnot you use -- is like another instrument in itself.

MB: Yeah, it's true. It definitely takes up a lot of room on stage. It's sort of like a fourth or fifth or sixth member. But at the same time, if the looper isn't there and we're playing a show, the songs still come across as what they are -- decent songs. All of those other sounds are just sort of there to enhance it. If something goes wrong with the looper -- which can happen on a show, but it happens rarely -- we can still sort of pull it off in a different sort of way.

The band started without a looper. The trio started with piano through effects, and then I got into the looper after the fact. After we'd record, I'd add all these tracks, and I thought, "Man, I have to figure out how to do this live." I really like these sounds, and I like the way they work as an introduction or a middle section or something. It helps with the short-term focus of today's society to have lots of other sounds happening.

WW: I was reading how you hung out with Brad Mehldau for the day, and he played his album Largo for you. It sounds like that day and his album really had an impact on you.

MB: Yeah, that was a great afternoon. It was really cool. I think I had basically moved to New York. I had been living in Boston, and I graduated from Berklee. So I was still a young jazz dork, playing sessions and practicing every day and trying to learn every single song in every fake book. I was going to Brad Mehldau, Oscar Peterson, Kenny Werner, Danilo Perez and all sorts of great pianists. Also other instrumentalists, as well, and great bands like Dave Holland's band.

Anyway, I'd go to see Mehldau, and I was always hanging out with [drummer] Jorge [Rossy] and [bassist] Larry [Grenadier] and just sort of talk to Brad, just like anybody would at any show. So I just knew him from the shows. My girlfriend at the time e-mailed his manager and asked him to give me a lesson.

And it worked out. It was amazing. I can't believe it worked out. I went over there for about six hours, and we talked about Brahms, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Paul Simon and Elliott Smith. I played him a few arrangements of my own tunes, like "Mephisto" and my arrangement of "Bye-Ya," the Thelonious Monk song.

It was a great hang, and then he played me Largo. It was like a big door-opener for me, because I was, like I said, a big jazz nerd into swing but who would do some straight stuff, but very light. I heard Largo, and I was just like, "Oh, right, that's exactly the sort of crossover." Matt Chamberlain's amazing drumming, as well as Jim Keltner's, and there was amazing jazz harmony, amazing jazz composition sort of over that.

It was this new sort of stuff that I'd never heard, sort of like when I heard the circuit bending, I was like, "Oh, that stuff is amazing. I've never heard anybody make those sounds." I heard this, and I was like, "Oh right, of course. It's sort of this evolution of jazz -- this sort of rock with effects on piano, piano through a Leslie, piano through distortion pedal and Silly Putty on the strings.

There was a guy playing laptop. I just thought it was really modern and really cool. The textures and sounds that Jon Brion got were really inspiring. When I heard it in 2002, I definitely thought it was forward-thinking, but I thought it was a natural evolution. A lot of pianists, and even saxophonists, guitarists and drummers, really got inspired by that record and are sort of doing that stuff. At the same time, it's really not that great to be a copycat, but somewhere it's inspiring to hear Mehldau do that and sort of do your own take on that.

What was really cool is that I did an interview with a guy who was friends with Mehldau, and he was more in touch with him than I was, because I haven't seen him in a while. The guy forwarded the song "Two of You," from the record, to Mehldau, and he wrote me back the next day. It was a really complimenting e-mail about the song. It was really cool to hear back from him. He said something like, "Beautiful, soaring melodies. Can't wait to buy the new record."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon