Marco Benevento has been whipping up a joyful maelstrom of heavily processed Hammond B-3 organ and Wurlitzer electric piano since first joining forces with drummer Joe Russo in 2002. Though the Benevento/Russo Duo remains active, a shift in focus has given Benevento free rein to explore acoustic piano on his more recent solo work. It's a new direction that places him squarely in the same modernist jazz camp as Radiohead-covering pianist Brad Mehldau and the Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson.
"You can call it post-jazz," the amiable pianist says in a phone conversation from his Brooklyn home while discussing his new disc, Me Not Me. "It evokes a theory of experimentation. It should have a question mark at the end of it. Post-jazz? What is that?" In Benevento's case, it's the nexus of his innovative approach and a gift for the tuneful reinvention of other artists' songs.
Me Not Me is primarily a collection of covers, and Benevento's unusual setup gives him an emotive palette with which to interpret an array of songwriters. He uses an acoustic guitar pickup to feed his piano's sound through effect pedals and into an old tube amp, conjuring a stunning array of otherworldly tones. This is augmented by an arsenal of circuit-bent toys and a loop station loaded with vintage analog keyboard samples. Though the recording includes three engaging originals ("Mephisto" sounds like a futuristic version of Joe Zawinul's signature ballad "Mercy Mercy Mercy") alongside classic songs by Leonard Cohen and George Harrison, half of the album finds the pianist putting his unique stamp on far more modern music.
Benevento launches My Morning Jacket's pastoral "Golden" into orbit with dizzying, staticky textures and swirling mellotron. Ably backed by bassist Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green, ex-Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey), and drummers Andrew Barr (the Slip) and Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos, Bill Frisell), the piano man transforms the song into a distant interstellar transmission. The Deerhoof track "Twin Killers" opens with a thunderous beat and stuttering wash of white noise before moving into a rollicking, barrelhouse-piano reading of the angular tune. The flanged-out, fuzz-bass–powered take on the Knife's electropop hit "Heartbeats" stands out as another highlight.
But for all of the unconventional arrangements and sonic adventurousness on the album, Benevento's memorable piano melodies and adherence to traditional song structure make Me Not Me an eminently accessible effort. "A lot of musicians, especially in the jazz world, tend to stretch the tune," he says. "This trio is more song-driven. We don't turn four-minute tunes into 16-minute tunes that often."
The keyboardist's month-long residency at Yoshi's in Oakland (his first such residency on the West Coast) will doubtless spotlight Me Not Me material, but it will also give fans a chance to hear the breadth of his scope, depending on the night. After an opening celebration Feb. 3, Benevento will showcase a two-drummer quartet with noted saxophonist Skerik, powerhouse percussionist G. Calvin Weston, and Bill Martin of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame on Feb. 10. On Feb. 17, he hits the stage as part of an improv-oriented group with Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker. "I like to keep things open," Benevento says. "The residency I did in Sullivan Hall [in Manhattan] was the same kind of thing. When [trumpet player] Steven Bernstein said, 'So, what do you want to play?' I said, 'What do you mean? We'll just play!'" Expect no shortage of free-rock and post-jazz fireworks this month when this keyboard maverick appears at Yoshi's.