Marco Benevento defies description. For the past dozen years or so — ever since he made his recording debut — observers and obsessives alike have found it difficult to put a precise handle on the music he’s made along the way.
Primarily keyboard driven, it dissolves the boundaries between prog, jam rock, psychedelia and electronica without giving full reign to any one genre in particular. The fact that he’s also worked with a variety of different collaborators in the past — members of the Shins, Spoon, The Lumineers and the New Pornographers, among them — and still works regularly with a Grateful Dead tribute band hints at his own variety and versatility.
Not surprisingly then, Benevento admits that even he has a hard time categorizing his sound. Speaking on the phone from his home in Upstate New York, he went into detail about how he’s tried to deal with that dilemma.
“After we did a gig a couple of months ago, one of our friends came up to me and said, ‘You have to come up with a name for your music because I can’t describe it. Can you?’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘No, I can’t. A running joke/problem for me is that when I do interviews and people ask me what kind of music I do, I simply say ‘rock.’ But then they say, ’It’s not just rock. Your music is really sexy.’ But you can’t say that, can you? So I want to say that it’s hot. To make matters more complicated, it’s piano based as well. My friend said he felt like the music was ‘dancey.’ So I said, ‘That’s it! Our music is hot, dance, piano rock.”
That’s a good as any description given the shifting tones that saturate his style. While the songs come across as very spontaneous and experimental, they still retain a distinct mood and melody. That’s especially true of his new album, “Let It Slide,” which consists of 13 songs that are upbeat, energetic and flush with a series of compelling, hypnotic grooves and an undeniable sense of unabashed exuberance.
“I’m drawn to songwriting and melody; I’m drawn to composing; and I’m drawn to making good records,” Benevento said. “I like both songs and melodies. I like making good pop songs, songs that could be on the radio. But there are times when we’re jamming and it’s just me on piano and I’m improvising my way on to the next song. So that’s one element in the mix. And then there’s also one that says, ‘Let’s throw in a nice melody for these three chords.’ So it becomes the best of all worlds. I can make songs with a band but also improvise and jam as well.”
Benevento’s studies at the renowned Berklee School of Music contributed to his musical pedigree, as well as to his proficiency. His due diligence to music of both a classical and pop variety offers further indication of his ability to smoothly shift between sounds.
Vibe as much as variety enters into the mix as well, but with eight albums to his credit, tracing the obvious trajectory isn’t as easy as it might appear. A piano player since the age of 7, and later, a regular on the New York jazz and experimental music circuit, he garnered a nomination for the Independent Music Awards Jazz Album on the Year by virtue of his debut release, 2008’s “Invisible Baby.” Other albums followed in rapid succession, and by the time he released his 2009 effort, “Me Not Me,” he found himself with a new record label, Royal Potato Family, a company he co-founded himself. He continues to record for them, although he said that he leaves its daily operation to others.
He also runs his own home studio called, oddly enough, Fred Short. It’s named for the street on which he lives.
Flash forward to the present. Benevento’s more recent albums have incorporated vocals and found a comfortable niche between jazz and rock, while still retaining the elements that have always been so essential to his signature style.
“I started getting into more music that was of the dance variety,” he said of the transition that began with “TigerFace,” his initial album of the past decade and first to feature vocals and a more band-oriented effort.
“It came from the fact that out crowds were growing and that I was writing a different style of music,” he continued. “During our live shows, we’re able to feature instrumental songs, then slow things down with more piano kind of things. When there are big shows in the big venues, people are on their feet ready to party. So we’ve incorporated synthesizers, drum machines and watched it evolve to more dance-type performances. But with three albums of instrumental music and four with vocals, it gives us a lot to choose from.”
The translation from studio to the stage isn’t always easy for artists that draw on the kind of freewheeling spontaneity that continues to be such an essential element in his live performances. However Benevento said he and his band — which also consists of Dave Butler (whose primary job is with the band Guster) playing drums and Karina Rykman on the bass — understands the need to maintain a live dynamic.
“I’ve been recording music for a long time and I’m pretty aware of the need to capture that concert vibe in the studio,” he said. “But if you go in and try too hard, it doesn’t always work. I have an amazing band. They learn the music and go beyond whatever I expect.”