Rhapsody – my (paid) music-streaming platform of choice – has, with its mind clearly elsewhere, categorized the music of the keyboardist and composer/songwriter Marco Benevento as “Free Jazz.” This is worth a laugh, but also a lesson.
See, for me, the most appealing thing about Benevento is precisely that he is not jazz; he is, moreover, a standing example that jazz holds no monopoly on improvisation and on harmonic invention in music. So Rhapsody got the “free” part right, at least – as long as by “free” we mean playful with all the materials and conventions of music, not free as in unruled and unruly.
I had heard several of Benevento’s hybrid electro records before the first time I saw him perform, as an accompanist with Tracy Bonham in a duo show at the Colony Café in Woodstock. In that stripped-down and supporting role, playing a grand piano and carrying Bonham’s elegant and witty tunes with such graceful self-sufficiency that she barely handled a violin all night and the guitar only a little more, Benevento’s freewheeling, liberated musicality really shone. Without ever dropping the ball of Bonham’s aesthetic intent, he toyed with her tunes, reharmonizing them on the fly, cracking them open and finding new songs within the songs as Tracy shot him admiring, surprised and faux-chastising glances, as if to say, “Marco, you little devil.”
And it was so not-jazz. It was gloriously not-jazz. The J word would never even have crossed your mind. What was it then? Harmonically expanded folk, I’d call it, with some groovy, extemporaneous Baroque and Romantic underpinnings. I heard more Chopin and Beethoven in his moves than Wynton Kelly, though Benevento can go as blue or as boogie-woogie as he likes as well; but that’s folk too. They say that Bach and Mozart improvised much of that music that is now so canonical – really just pulled it out of their powdered butts as royals and high clergy looked on. I like to see Marco in that tradition, though clearly more jester than courtier.
Benevento’s new record Swift (2104, Royal Potato Family) is, despite some highly musical goofiness, a tightly focused effort conceptually, and one that pretty much laughs in the face of everything that I have just said about his music. It is adventurous and playful indeed; but its adventure lies not so much in its harmonies as in its quirky sonics, its dense layering of fritzy and cartoonish sounds, its borderline-chaotic rhythm tracks that juxtapose clunky over klutzy to magnificent effect. Swift is by no means a keyboard showcase, though you catch a glimpse of chops here and there. Benevento is the opposite of a showboater, bless him.
Swift is also Benevento’s most song-oriented record, and his first as a vocalist. How to grade him as a singer? I’ll go with “effective,” both because he handles the songs’ simple and anthemic melodies competently (“Eye to Eye” alone gets a little clever with shapely melodies) and because the vocals are highly effected, remote with reverb and filtering, but entirely of a piece with the overall production vibe. Hey, hiding a little is what we sort-of singers do these days. He sounds like a warmer and more human Moby. Can you live with that? I can.
Swift ultimately reveals itself to be a delightfully, unapologetically awkward indie disco record of sorts, dancing and singing for those who are maybe not great at dancing and singing. But it is done with awesome musical touch and imagination, and with a lucid vision of what it is trying to be. Words fail. You’ll have to hear this unique record to know what I mean – or better yet, attend Benevento’s CD release show on September 16 at BSP to see how he goes about transmitting the studio-intensive vibe of this project in a live setting. Odds are that he’ll stretch out a bit more on keys, and that is hardly a bad thing.
Tickets cost $12 in advance, $15 the day of the show, and are available at Outdated in Kingston, Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Darkside Records in Poughkeepsie and the Woodstock Music Shop.
Output Agency presents Marco Benevento Swift record release, Friday, September 26, 10:30 p.m., $15/$12, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.