More than Meets the Eye

Cell phone cameras. MP3-playing sunglasses. Laser-pointing, voice-recording, deionizing salad spinners. Thanks a lot, technology — now everything that does anything does something else too. The musical equivalent is, of course, the Benevento-Russo Duo, the Brooklyn-based drums 'n' keys outfit that's the Optimus Prime of genre-crushing hybrid bands. With a well-practiced history in improv jazz and big-band funk, reined in by a tight embrace of arena rock drama, keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Joe Russo can transform from slinky, syrupy dance grooves to Radiohead-heavy grandeur faster than you can say, Autobots, roll out.

"You can call me a jam band, a rock band, a jazz band — I could care less," Benevento says on the phone after the last of the latest series of gigs around the Eastern seaboard. Clearly the 27-year-old New Yorker is at home with his band's amorphous, freestyle approach. "I don't care if people wanna categorize it, and I don't think it's detrimental to try to find a category. If anything, it's creating this ruffle, this commotion, like, 'Who the fuck is this? What am I hearing? 'Cause I don't know what it is and I wanna define it.' You can't; it is what it is. And you like it, and that's the most important part."

Like many a musical epiphany, the Duo came together through a fortunate convergence of raw talent and abject poverty. Before relocating to New York independently of each other in the late Nineties, both Benevento and Russo had spent time sleeping around with other bands in other cities; Russo had even achieved minor success on the college circuit with the Boulder, Colorado-based acid jazz crew Fat Mama. But gigging in the competitive Big Apple jazz-jam circuit — and landing a coveted weekly gig at famed downtown hot spot the Knitting Factory for the bulk of 2002 — forced a reconsideration of what it means to be a full band.

"We went to the duo thing because of the Kitting Factory gig, primarily," Benevento says. "It payed 100 bucks, and Joe was like, 'If you just bring the organ down, we'll make 50 bucks each.' It was totally out of practicality. We didn't sit down and say, 'Hey, let's start a duo.' It was just like, we both had girlfriends, we were living in New York, doing gigs around town for like 20, 30, 40, 50 bucks. It was just a gig. We didn't even talk between gigs; we just improvised every Thursday."

The Duo's growth from an impromptu improv band (albeit one that garnered major critical and fan attention) to the passionate, jazz-rock hot rod it is today is powerfully evidenced in the band's most recent release, Best Reason to Buy the Sun. Swollen with chops, veering from ominous, electronica-tweaked ambience to organ-driven soul serenades, and infused with an emotional core so rare in instrumental music, it's their first for Washington, D.C.-based cool magnet Ropeadope Records.

"It's only been out since April, so according to the majority of people in the world, we've existed for only six, seven months," Benevento says. "We put out two albums before that, and we'd been around, but Ropeadope has been giving us a nice push. All that stuff has only been happening for six months. We've been on the road a lot, but we need to do some more pushing."

What these guys think of as "more pushing" most would consider a form of slow, extended torture. The Benevento-Russo Duo gained notoriety for its unpredictable, often explosive live shows, so the band makes a point of taking it on the road as often as humanly possible.

"I'm at home at most maybe ten days a month," Benevento sighs. "That's just how it's been. People look at me like, 'What the hell's wrong with you?' And I'm like, 'You know what? I don't think there's anything else I should be doing right now.'"

That sense of purpose is obvious once the band takes the stage. Performances spin off into punk-spirited sweatfests that find both players tinkering with technology, looping themselves to achieve a stunner of a sound larger than seemingly possible. Extended instrumental sparring sessions morph into covers of Led Zep and Radiohead; the way the Duo distills the essence of bigger bands into its own dead-on, two-man sonic frenzy is truly astounding.

"This last tour was the best tour of my life, hands down," Benevento says. "The crowds were awesome — we're at the four- to five-hundred person mark in the major cities."

And what kind of crowds are they — hippie, hipster, indie-rocker, jazzbo? "All of them! All of them, baby. I'm amazed," Benevento says. Then, after a pause: "Actually, I'm not that amazed. It makes sense. We've reached a place where we're like, this is our style, this is what we're into right now. We've been writing songs that are almost like rock songs without the singer. We've been throwing around [the term] instrumental jazz rock. We're not writing chord changes to solo over anymore, we're writing chords to play melodies over, and then maybe another section, and then another melody, and then an ending. There's lots of compositional ideas being thrown around. It's just the natural evolution of the Duo."

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Jonathan Zwickel

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