Last weekend’s Newport Folk Festival was amazing and this year’s edition of the Newport Jazz Festival promises to live up to the same standard. It’ll be returning to Fort Adams this weekend from Friday-Sunday to close out the month and the lineup is incredibly stacked with talent. Among this talented performers set to appear are the Benvento/Russo Duo consisting of Marco Benevento on piano and Joe Russo on drums. The pair will bring acoustic versions of their songs to Fort Adams during the first day of the festival on the Fort Stage at 1:55 p.m. Benevento has also had a busy year outside of the duo with a new solo album that was recently released and even put on his own music festival last month.
We had a talk about the making of the album, how he came up with the idea for his music festival, the creative partnership he and Russo have and how he feels honored to be a part of the Newport Jazz Festival.
Rob Duguay: You made your latest solo album, Benevento, in your home studio in Woodstock, NY while being surrounded by stacks of gear during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. What was the experience like making the album in this setting?
Marco Benevento: It was weird because it was the pandemic and that was a brand new experience, but compared to a lot of musician friends I have that live in New York City and other places like that, I kind of benefitted from being home and sort of trapped in Woodstock for a long period of time. First of all, I got to recharge my batteries from being on tour all the time and second of all I got to hang out with my kids and wife more. Being on the road a lot, I’ve missed them a bunch. Then, third of all, it was great to dive into all this music that I’d written over the years. I was able to tackle all the tunes I wanted to dive into so it was a great experience for me. When the kids would do their Zoom schooling I would go into my studio to work on all these jams that I couldn’t really finish because I was always on the road.
I finished up about 30 songs. I was very productive during that time. I had a chance to dive into every single keyboard I have, every single tape machine and drum machine while really messing around with all sorts of options. It was a great learning experience working on all those tunes, then I picked the top ones I wanted to put on a record and I eventually found 10-12 songs that eventually became what the album is now as Benevento. Benevento II will probably shortly follow because I have so much material from that year. It was just me in there, there wasn’t an engineer or a producer, no one else to chime in and there was no timeframe that it had to be done so I really experimented with all the options I had with each song.
It was really, really great and I made the tunes while sitting down with my four-track, put it into a computer and sent it off to my friend to get it mixed and mastered. Then I had a record and while I first listened to it I thought it was weird and I wasn’t sure if people were going to like it because there’s some experimental jams which are a little different from other records I’ve made. So far it’s gotten a great response from all sorts of people and that’s been refreshing and relieving a bit.
RD: I personally think it’s a great record as well, I’ve enjoyed listening to it. Coming from an experimental music and jazz background, your music over the past few years has become more psychedelic and rhythmic with your live set up having a lot of lighting while creating a dance party atmosphere. What would you say is the main catalyst for you going down this artistic route?
MB: It’s probably just the evolution of touring, playing and searching for different sounds live. I’m in a trio so it’s piano, bass and drums and anything I can do over in my world to expand my palate sonically I’ll do. I just added a couple synthesizers to my rig to try to have different sounds in there because otherwise you’re just dealing with those three instruments which almost sounds like you’re doing a jazz gig or something, like a lighter sort of sitdown show. In reality, my music is not like that and there’s drum machines that I have with me, there’s samples, loopers and things like that. It’s sort of a natural evolution of the band’s growing up and the songs, especially with the new record.
Now it’s all about making those sounds live and what extra stuff I can bring to throw into the van. It’s just been a natural evolution of us, our crowds are getting bigger so we’re playing places where it’s standing room only and these packed houses where people are looking to dance. I love playing that kind of music, I have a lot of energy and when I see a show I like to dance. Music for me is about positivity, energy and dancing andI like that element of our group. When we started as this trio we were playing sitdown rooms like Yoshi’s out in Oakland, California or Jazz Standard in New York City, but as the crowds got bigger and I started writing different songs it evolved into more of a colorful, upbeat kind of thing.
RD: I totally see that from your live set up. When it comes to collaborating, what in your opinion makes you and Joe Russo’s musical partnership unique and does it ever get difficult transitioning your songs into a stripped down approach like what you’ll be doing at the Newport Jazz Festival?
MB: Joe and I go way back, we’ve known each other since seventh grade. I remember him being like ‘Dude! You gotta check out Led Zeppelin!’ so we have a deep musical connection that’s grown over the years. We both play in Almost Dead a lot and we’ve been playing together for a lot of years as a duo. We’ve toured around together for a while with a Hammond organ, farfisa and Wurlitzer, I was surrounded by keyboards and a bunch of gadgets. Back in 2010, we did an acoustic gig. I don’t know why or what made us decide to do it, I think we just wanted to try something different, but we did this gig at the Highline Ballroom in New York City and it went so well. It was so fun and it was nice to not be strapped down to all the keyboards I have.
I was playing bass lines with my foot through the Hammond organ while copping rhythms on the organ with my right hand. Then I played solos with my right hand on the Wurlitzer, setting up all these keyboards and moving my feet and hands around is great but it’s kind of nice to have two hands on one instrument like the piano. Out of all the keyboards that are out there my favorite is the piano, so it’s nice to just kind of deconstruct the duo and play our music but on just piano and drums. When we did that at the Highline Ballroom, our eyes opened up and we wanted to do that again. This was back in 2010, so it was a while ago but a lot has happened since then.
Joe joined Furthur, which is a Grateful Dead side project, and I started my own band so the whole acoustic duo thing got put toward the side. We’re finally able to do this again at the Jazz Festival and I’m psyched. During the pandemic we did it at Relix’s studio in Manhattan and it went really well, it was so fun to sort of communicate that way as piano and drums versus organ, electric piano, farfisa, all sorts of other stuff and drums. It’s nice to just bare bones it, get into more dynamics and more space too. There’s no bass, there’s no low end and it’s just different, we had so much fun doing it at Relix and when we got the Newport gig we were super psyched.
We played in Newport last year with Christian McBride and John Scofield and that went great, it was nice to be at that festival. I’m excited to go back and play our own songs that we wrote together.
RD: Yeah, it looks like it’s going to be a really awesome time. Speaking of festivals, you put on your own at Arrowood Farms in New York’s Hudson Valley back on June 18th called Follow The Arrow with Antibalas, The Slip, Surprise Me Mr. Davis and many other acts. How was it curating and putting together this whole thing? Do you plan on having it be an annual festival?
MB: We plan on doing it every year and it was a blast. The goal is to make it better and better every year so hopefully that’s what we’ll do. A guy who is a close friend of mine had been mentioning to me for a long time about Arrowood Farms and how we could host a day festival there. I was all about it and years and years went by and we couldn’t figure out a date for it because I’m on the road a lot so it’s difficult to find a weekend that’s free. There’s no free weekends for me so we couldn’t really pull it together but this year we magically found a weekend that’s free, we got the date on a call and then we made a dream list of who we wanted to have at the festival.
We got basically everybody except for one, we wanted Rubblebucket to come but they were busy doing something else. We couldn’t get them but we got everyone else we wanted to play. It’s a small festival, it’s not going to be a big one by any means but hopefully over the course of a few years it’ll grow but for now we’re just getting our friends together to see what we can pull off and I’m excited for the future of it.
RD: We’ve already talked for a bit about the Newport Jazz Festival, but what are your thoughts on being part of this year’s edition of the festival and what makes you the most excited to be involved again?
MB: Oh man, it’s legendary. Last year when we played there, we got off the stage and I just happened to be walking with John Scofield. He was telling me how he remembered playing Newport with Miles Davis in the ‘80s and when we were done with our gig, he walked over to a boat over by the harbor and he just got on it and went back to New York City and I thought it was the coolest thing. It feels unbelievable and hard to explain how honored I feel to be invited to Newport and to be playing there.