Jazz pianist Marco Benevento has never been one to stick to tradition. Whether it’s fusing jazz with rock ‘n’ roll or jam-band stylings, or wiring pickups to his acoustic piano and running the output through various effects pedals, Benevento consistently endeavors to push boundaries.
On his latest album, “Swift,” Benevento continues this trend by adding a new instrument to the mix: his voice.
On his last album, “Tigerface,” he enlisted the help of Rubblebucket singer Kalmia Traver for tracks like “Limbs of a Pine” and “This Is How It Goes.” It was an arrangement that Benevento almost revisited on his latest album.
“For a second, I thought I’d just call up Kalmia and have her sing, but I was like, ‘Dude, are you going to keep having someone else sing your songs?’ It was time to bite the bullet and just do it myself,” he says.
Benevento is no stranger to singing, having sung throughout his youth. But his jazz studies at the Berklee College of Music led him away from singing. It wasn’t until he and several friends decided to recreate The Bands’ “Last Waltz” a few years ago that the thought of singing crept back into his mind.
“My part in that was to do the Garth Hudson parts, but I also did the Dr. John “Such a Night” part. I sang that, and a lot of my friends were like, “Dude, you don’t sing? You’re nailing this Dr. John thing.’ “
An opportunity to perform the music of James Booker at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and a move to Woodstock, New York, pushed him further in that direction.
“Playing with the locals up in Woodstock, I’ve been singing a little more,” Benevento says. “And, honestly, after a night full of heavy instrumental music and heavy jamming, it’s a nice relief in our set for me to actually start singing.”
Not that Benevento is taking it any easier on stage. Already running his piano through multiple effects pedals — which he constantly tweaks while playing — he also controls the effects for his vocals, while triggering drum loops with his feet and playing synth parts with his right hand.
“Yeah, there’s a lot going on, but I’ve been doing it all my life, so it just feels like a natural progression,” he says.
Regarding things that musicians do their whole lives, Benevento chuckles as he remembers an exchange with guitarist Charlie Hunter at Jazz Fest in New Orleans.
“I started doing my new songs, and he was, like, ‘It took you 30 years to learn how to play the piano. Now, it’s going to take you 30 years to learn how to sing.’ It was almost discouraging, but it actually egged me on. I was, like, ‘Right, I can do it. I have to start somewhere. I have to start now.’ “
So where has he started? How does singing lyrics change his approach to songwriting?
“The way I go about it, the starting point is syllable singing, where I’ll have and idea and improvise words. From there I’ll find a couple words that came out or a line that winds up being the chorus. From there I’ll make a story out of it. I almost work backwards compared with a Bob Dylan or Lennon. What I imagine them kind of doing is writing the story first then figuring out how to fit the words and music together. I’m doing the opposite. I have the music and the grooves, chords and melody, and then I shape the words as I go along.”
He says delivering the words in front of a live audience put him into a different headspace than when he’s just playing.
“It’s a very vulnerable place to be a singer,” he says. “I never like the sound of my voice. I have a lower, baritone voice and I never really thought I should be a singer. … You just get over yourself and do it the best you can.”
But putting yourself out there can be more rewarding for a performer.
“I find that the audiences, and people in general, are attracted to the vocals, to the story, to the lyrics and the singer,” he says. “Now that we’re throwing in these words and lyrics, [the audience] is feeling more connected to them. People start dancing more. It’s cool to see the audience engaged.”
Benevento has run his own label, Potato Family Records, for the past five years. Being his own boss has allowed him to dictate how much and when he tours. He’s found that 10-day tours work best for him, giving the band enough time to find their groove, but not get on each other’s nerves.
“It’s a labor of love. I love playing music. … But at the same time, it’s like, ‘I have to get home to my fam and hang out with them and help the kids get to school on time.’ … I’ve done six week tours before, and sometimes you actually get diminishing returns after the second week. People just start to get really unhappy. … At least when I do go on the road, it’s according to my wishes.”