Pianist Marco Benevento, who's performing at Yoshi's Oakland on Tuesday nights throughout February 2009, is a gentle and engaging artist with a light, virtuoso touch. His instrumental arrangements, be it of an original composition or a cover, exude a friendly, effortless vibe, even as layers of synth fuzz, squelches and squeaks punctuate the often simple melodies that he coaxes from his Steinway grand. But it would be a mistake to confuse Benevento's guileless playing style and casual stage presence with complacency. Indeed, for the Yoshi's run, Benevento appears to have gone out of his way to make things as challenging for himself as possible.
The series of shows began on Tuesday, February 3 with a party to mark the release of Me Not Me, whose 10 tracks are dominated by songs written by everyone from Leonard Cohen to Jimmy Page. Joining Benevento were bassist Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green, drummer Andrew Barr of The Slip and a guy named Jay Cooper, who worked a Mac laptop off to the side of the stage to create a spacey light show of archival film loops and live video (though credited by Benevento as providing the evening's "visual art," I could have sworn that Cooper also added digital beats to augment the analog ones tapped out by Barr).
A sweet, almost easy-listening rendition of My Morning Jacket's "Golden," the first song on the new CD, kicked things off. For the most part, the live version of this tune was light on synthesized augmentation, so the piano's slow procession of ringing chords was largely front and center. The same tune on the CD has roughly the opposite hierarchy, and as the evening progressed, Benevento spent less and less time with his hands on the keys to devote more attention to the knobs and dials resting on the piano's lid.
As on the CD, "Golden" was followed by an original piece called "Now They Are Writing Music." Throughout the course of the 80-minute-or-so show, Benevento and company played one more track from Me Not Me that I could recognize (George Harrison's "Run of the Mill"), several others from his early 2008 release, Invisible Baby and a handful of other tunes. As I sat there listening to Benevento's fluid playing, with its alternating fever bursts of discordant energy balanced by nursery-rhyme themes, I could hear nods to Page McConnell of Phish, salutes to both the Chick Corea and Gary Burton parts of "Senor Mouse" and, in "The Real Morning Party," a sincere embrace of the 8-bit soundtracks that accompanied early Nintendo video games. Benevento calls his music post-jazz, but a more accurate description might be post-genre. I like this guy even if I don't always know why, and I plan to see him again before the month ends.
In part, I want to see how he rises to his self-imposed challenge. Instead of honing and refining all month long with Mathis and Barr, which would have been a perfectly reasonable plan, Benevento will perform each Tuesday with an entirely different lineup. Not just with different rhythm sections, but with occasionally odd instrument combinations that promise unexpected sonic combinations. On Tuesday the 10th, the lineup features drummers Billy Martin (Medeski, Martin & Wood) and G. Calvin Weston, who will share the stage with Benevento and renowned saxman Skerik (Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois). On Tuesday the 17th, Benevento welcomes guitarist Jeff Parker of Tortoise and Devin Hoff and Scott Amendola, the bassist and drummer respectively of the Nels Cline Singers. Finally, on the 24th, Benevento and his partner in The Duo, drummer Joe Russo, will pair up with saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and trombonist Josh Roseman. For that show they will be known as "Quartet the Killer," a riff on the title of a Neil Young song called "Cortez the Killer." Naturally, on that Tuesday, the ensemble will be playing Young's music all night long.
For tickets and information, visit yoshis.com.