Marco Benevento flashes a wide smile on stage as he works the multi-colored keys before him.
The Berklee-educated pianist and composer has spent years honing his craft and, more significantly, his own personal style of experimentation in music. He's a collaborative artist and a friend to many. And his solo material, which he brings to Cleveland this week, encompasses a broad range of influences, moods and mental states.
When he's performing, his enthusiasm is clear. The immediacy of the moment and the depth of the music transposes with deft ease onto the audience on any given night.
"In general, I like to keep things loose on stage," he says. "Our band has never rehearsed." Preferring the open-ended stage time he and his bandmates pick up on tour, it's a point of matter-of-fact pride that they've all been able to craft an improv-friendly sound while maintaining the complexities of the album recordings.
He's surely cultivated his own sort of niche in the experimental music crowds, but he fits in well with the contemporary jam band scene. So, at times, his composition work serves more as a road map for where the evening's festivities may go. There's plenty of communication happening onstage, and Benevento's latest tracks have been garnering the excitable, upbeat live attention they deserve.
"It's cool to watch audience's responses to all the new music. It's very engaging," he says.
Benevento released TigerFace last September, prompting critics and fans alike to wonder aloud at both the consistency of his career thus far and his willingness to evolve as an artist. The album certainly has a different feel from past works.
Part of the shift in the work behind TigerFace has to do with the fact that Benevento and his family moved from Brooklyn to Saugerties, New York, a small town on the banks of the Hudson River, just down the road from Woodstock. Even just considering the effort behind a move like that, Benevento was left with little time to sketch out his next album.
"I kind of put all the editing and all the mixing on hold for awhile. But I didn't put a hold on the listening," Benevento says. As he and his family moved their lives northward into Upstate New York, he kept playing the new melodies and diving into their intricate possibilities. "It was sort of a slow drift into what actually became the record," he adds. And throughout the album's 10 offerings, there's a very sculpted feel. Sculpted, in no small part, by the dedicated care that Benevento applies with the hand of a vibey master at work.
"I wasn't really hesitant about anything," he says. Nor was he hampered by deadlines or the sharpened input of critical throngs. "I was in no rush to make it."
Over time, he began dropping snippets of the forthcoming record. Via single releases and a steady sense of growth in the studio, TigerFace began to materialize. This overarching new sound began to emerge from the piano's ether.
Benevento alludes to Dr. John's latest album Locked Down as sort of an example of cohesion and thematic underpinnings in music — the kind of stuff he's been subconsciously shifting toward over the years. "It's freaking awesome and every song is really in the style of the record," he says of the Dr. John material. As Benevento's career has evolved, he's seen his own songwriting craft move toward a similar sense of connectivity.
Even the first trio of songs on TigerFace bears a natural progression into the core of the album. "Limbs of a Pine," an utterly infectious tune — among Benevento's first to include vocals — starts things off with a rave-up dance atmosphere. Rubblebucket's Kalmia Traver guests on the mic here. Her voice, by the way, is the perfect complement to Benevento's jaunty keys work. She also shows up on the second track: "This is How it Goes."
And that song, real quick here, is worth a small bit of analysis. (Dig the instrumental take on the back end of the album for comparative purposes.) Benevento says he was messing around with one of his many circuit-bent toys and cooking up the jangly electronic melody that shows up in the song's chorus.
"That whole song stemmed out of that demo, as far as its origins go," Benevento says. He lathered up a loose structure to fill out the skeleton of the song. "And then I wrote the chords around it." Studio sessions fleshed out the rest of the music, followed by a sort of syllabic placeholder for what would eventually become Traver's lyrical input.
The third cut on the album, "Fireworks," sees a return to the wordless piano structure for which Benevento has become well known. The song hearkens back to classical motifs and provides a bit of a foil to the indie-pop sensory features of "Limbs of a Pine." From there, the album dovetails into a circuitous trip through the woods. Each song lights up its own little world, illuminating more and more of the secret behind the album's namesake, the patchwork tiger face on the cover.
Mysteries abound throughout the writing and recording process. Benevento explains that the studio sessions often come complete with excitable outbursts like: "Oh, wait! I think the ending should be the beginning!" After a quick chop job on the mixing board, an entire song may be flipped around for the betterment of the music. "There's a lot of that on the album," he says.
And the plethora of guest spots increases the chance for surprises. For instance, bassist Mike Gordon and the guys from Phish were wrapping up their summer tour and the bus just happened to be passing through Benevento's city en route back to Vermont. Gordon stopped by to hang out for a bit and the two of them dug into a track that was in need of some bass work. (You can hear the polished result in "Escape Horse," a darkly plodding and very exciting tune.)
"I don't like to go into a recording studio knowing what I'm doing," Benevento says.
The trip is the intent. And the intent is all for your delight.