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Marco Benevento: Jazz Not Jazz

Much of the jazz world doesn't quite know what to make of Marco Benevento. He studied at Berklee College of Music. He improvises. He interprets popular songs. That's a good start.

At the same time, the New Jersey native consorts with the jam-band scene, and the songs he covers on his new album, Me Not Me, are not a part of the classic American songbook. They are, however, the popular music of today — songs from My Morning Jacket, Deerhoof, even Leonard Cohen. After more than a decade of jamming, improvising and experimenting with sound, Benevento has discovered his own way into music by combining the thrust of rock, the questing of jazz and the experimental ecstasy of jam.

Leonard Cohen's desperate tale, "Seems So Long Ago Nancy," resonates with the pianist. He lived with the song for nearly a decade before he recorded it. By that time, Benevento had amassed a small army of keyboards, circuit-bending toys and piano effects.

Particularly, you can hear the use of the Optigan, a device created by the toy manufacturer Mattel. The Optigan, or optical organ, plays samples from a transparency with sound waves printed on it, like the grooves on a record. An optical laser reads the transparency and creates a wobbly, out-of-tune, almost eerie-sounding keyboard effect.

In this session, you'll hear a Steinway grand like never before. Benevento attached a $30 guitar pickup to the underside of the piano lid. That pickup is run though a variety of effects — pedal distortion, warm-sounding tube preamplifiers, analog delays, even a tremolo.

Benevento and his trio cover Deerhoof's "Twin Killers," a song he heard when guitarist Charlie Hunter introduced him to the album The Runners Four. And they close with an original, "Mephisto," a song Benevento wrote while a member of The Jazz Farmers, his first band in New York.

By the end of the session, you'll discover something about Benevento's laboratory experiment in modern music. You might not call it jazz, but you might hear it for what it is — a cross between the mental floss of jazz improvisation and the cutting-edge sonority of popular keyboard music.

Originally recorded March 7, 2009, at WBGO.

Listen to the previous Favorite Session, or see our full archive.

Copyright 2009 WBGO

Josh Jackson
Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for content at WRTI in Philadelphia.